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Eight Moldovans jailed for fighting with pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova has handed prison sentences to eight citizens for fighting on the side of pro-Russian rebels in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, General Prosecutor Eduard Harunjen said on Thursday.

The small ex-Soviet republic is politically and culturally divided between supporters of closer ties with Moscow and those who want Moldova eventually to follow neighboring Romania, with which it shares a language, into the European Union and NATO.

Speaking in parliament, Harunjen said Moldovans working in Russia were at ongoing risk of being drawn into the conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people since fighting broke out in 2014.

“This is when brothers, fathers and husbands go away to work in eastern countries and there they are recruited into military groups. Sometimes they die there and sometimes they come home, but their hands are bloodied,” he said.

Those convicted face varying jail terms. A further 25 Moldovans are on international wanted lists in connection with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, he said.

Relations between Moldova and Russia are at a low ebb following tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats last year. At the time, sources told Reuters this was linked partly to attempts by Moscow to recruit fighters in Moldova for the conflict in Ukraine.

The conflict in Ukraine erupted after the ouster of a Russia-backed president in Kiev and Moscow’s subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Moscow politically backs the insurgents while denying Western accusations that it is also arming them and sending fighters to aid them.

Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Matthias Williams and Peter Graff