CHISINAU Moldova on Thursday launched a top-level inquiry into the death of a well-connected businessman in a mysterious shooting incident during a hunting trip which has led to opposition charges of an attempted cover-up by senior government officials.
President Nicolae Timofti, in a move to stop the affair destabilizing the pro-Europe governing alliance, ordered the investigation though his office and scolded authorities for "keeping the tragedy secret" and thereby only fuelling speculation.
The businessman, 34-year-old Sorin Paciu, was one of a 32-strong party, which included top officials from the judiciary, who were hunting boar on a reserve north-west of the capital Chisinau on December 23 when he was shot and wounded in unexplained circumstances.
He died subsequently in hospital of his wounds and the general prosecutor's office formally opened a criminal case against unknown persons for manslaughter.
The leader of an anticorruption pressure group, Serdjiu Mocanu, later alleged that the general prosecutor himself, Valerii Zubco, who was on the same hunting trip, had been involved in the shooting.
Mocanu further alleged that Zubco's allies in government had sought to cover up the truth.
Zubco - a political appointee belonging to one of the ruling Alliance's three parties - has denounced the accusations as "lies and unbounded cynicism".
"I am aware of the slander about me, but I will give more detailed information only after an inquiry is completed as required by the law," he said in a statement.
But Mocanu's allegations of high-level collusion among top government officials to hide the truth have been pounced upon by the communist opposition eager to cause any discomfort for the pro-western coalition which has been in power for three years.
Communist supporters are staging protests outside the general prosecutor's office and the interior ministry in Chisinau, touting slogans calling for Zubco to resign.
Timofti's press spokesman said the commission of inquiry set up on Thursday would "clarify the actions of the law enforcement agencies around the incident".
But he said the president was "dissatisfied" with the work of the prosecutor's office, the police and agency which had organized the hunting trip.
The small ex-Soviet republic, one of Europe's poorest countries, is governed by the three-party Alliance for European Integration which is seeking to integrate Moldova into the European mainstream.
But the Alliance itself is threatened by rivalries among its three parties.
The communist opposition remains strong, particularly in the countryside, and, with economic growth at zero level, it continues to reap capital from the government's failure to bring any real improvements in living standards.
(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing By Richard Balmforth)