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Moldova says latest talks with separatists 'difficult'

The coat of arms of Transdniestria is depicted on a banner in central Tiraspol

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - A senior official of Moldova's pro-European government said on Wednesday that his latest talks with the pro-Russian separatist Transdniestria region had been "quite difficult" as tension rises in the three-decade-old standoff.

The region split from Moldova before the collapse of Soviet rule and fought a brief war against the newly independent state lying between Ukraine and Romania.

Transdniestria has since stood on Moldova's eastern fringe with little turmoil or violence -- 2,000 Russian "peacekeepers" remain on the line separating the two.

A fresh dispute has emerged over Moldova's imposition of customs duties on exports and imports from Transdniestria - part of the ex-Soviet state's efforts to join the European Union.

Moldova's deputy prime minister, Oleg Serebrean, said the latest talks between the sides on Tuesday, in Transdniestria's main town of Tiraspol, had focused on the new tax regime.

"The meeting in Tiraspol took place in quite a difficult situation, both in national and regional terms," Serebrean told a news conference in the capital, Chisinau. "But I cannot say that the meeting produced no results. We did get results."

Serebrean dismissed allegations that the regulations would hurt the region's businesses, saying they involved modest increases in duty. He said the region's residents would benefit from medical facilities and schools in the rest of the country.

Three decades of negotiations have produced little movement towards resolving the dispute with the separatists, who rely heavily on Moscow for financial assistance.

President Maia Sandu has said that Moldolva could press ahead with its bid to join the EU without Transdniestria, citing the divided island of Cyprus as a precedent in membership talks.

Sandu has denounced Moscow's war in neighbouring Ukraine and singled out Russia -- and endemic corruption -- as the biggest threats facing her country, one of the poorest in Europe.

Parts of Russian missiles have landed in Moldova. Separatist authorities last week accused Moldova's authorities of training soldiers to launch attacks on its institutions and leaders.

One-on-one talks with Transdniestria are held under the auspices of the 57-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has been mediating for decades. They replaced a longstanding "5+2" format in which Russia, Ukraine and the United States participated, along with observers from the EU and the United States. That format was abandoned after Ukraine refused to take part alongside Russia, citing the Kremlin's 22-month-old invasion.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Editing by Ron Popeski and Leslie Adler)