MOSCOW A senior Russian politician said on Sunday he had brought to Moscow a petition by residents of Moldova's Russian-speaking, breakaway region of Transdniestria backing union with Russia.
Dmitry Rogozin's comments will further rattle Moldova, an impoverished former Soviet republic which, like neighboring Ukraine, is seeking closer ties with Europe but faces stiff resistance from Moscow.
Transdniestria, which broke from Moldova in 1990, has long sought to join Russia and the West fears the narrow sliver of land on the Dniestr river will be Moscow's next target following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"The Russian delegation has ... brought home the appeal to the Russian authorities by Transdniestrians. And even if it's of symbolic rather than legal character it is now important to us," Rogozin wrote on Facebook.
Rogozin, who oversees Russia's arms industry and is known for his harsh anti-Western rhetoric, also posted online pictures showing numerous piles of paper covered with signatures.
He and his delegation visited Transdniestria to celebrate the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
Moldovan security officers searched their plane after it was forced to return to the capital Chisinau when Ukraine refused to let it fly through its air space, Russian officials said.
Moldova said it had seized lists of names during the search and was analyzing them, though Rogozin said he had returned home with the names of "most" of those taking part in the petition.
"The recent actions and statements by D. Rogozin are counter-productive and do not help progress in settling the Transdniestria conflict," Moldova's foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
Moscow says it has the right to protect its compatriots and Russian-speakers abroad but denies Western accusations that it is fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, where separatists held a referendum on self-rule on Sunday.
Ukraine has said illegal military groups from Transdniestria were working with Russians to stir up unrest in its nearby Black Sea city of Odessa, where dozens died in clashes this month.
Transdniestria has not been recognized by any state as independent, but is home to some 2,500 Russian soldiers and half-a-million people - 30 percent of them ethnic Russians - who look to Moscow as their patron, much like the narrow ethnic Russian majority in Crimea.
Rogozin triggered an angry response from NATO member Romania on Saturday when, reacting to being barred from Romanian airspace, he said that next time he would fly on a Russian bomber jet.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Additional reporting by Alexander Tanas in Chisinau; Editing by Gareth Jones)