MOSCOW – The tiny, poverty-wracked European nation of Moldova slipped into chaos Tuesday as thousands of stone-hurling youths, demonstrating against what they said were rigged national elections, overran parliament in the capital city of Chisinau.

Police were unable to keep an estimated 10,000 protesters from ransacking the building that houses the country’s legislature and storming offices of President Vladimir Voronin. It was unclear whether Voronin was in the building at the time.

Fueling the violence were allegations by opposition leaders that Voronin’s Communist-led government had falsified legislative elections on Sunday in a bid to maintain power.

Legislative elections in Moldova are pivotal because the president is selected by parliament and not by popular vote. Voronin, Moldova’s president since 2001, has already served two terms and is legally barred from serving a third. However, the results of Sunday’s elections preserved Voronin’s Communist party as the country’s dominant political force.

Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated in preliminary findings that the elections were largely free and democratic, though the vote was marred by allegations of police intimidation of voters and candidates.

However, opposition party leaders denounced the vote as fraudulent, saying there was evidence of multiple voting. Demonstrators demanded a recount.

“We have renamed election day as a ‘day of mourning’ for us,” said Ghenadie Brega, a member of the opposition movement. “They have stolen our future.”

Moldova, a former Soviet republic curled in between Ukraine and Romania, has a population of about 4.1 million and is regarded as one of Europe’s poorest nations. The average wage is about $350 a month. Though Voronin maintains friendly ties with the Kremlin, Moldova has also sought to bolster its relations with the European Union.

Russian television showed legions of demonstrators massing around parliament Tuesday, waving flags of the European Union, Moldova and Romania while shouting chants of “Down with Communism!” and “We Want Europe!” The protests careened out of control after waves of demonstrators broke through police cordons and began pelting windows in the parliament and presidential office buildings with rocks and chunks of concrete.

Once inside, demonstrators set furniture ablaze and tossed computers out of windows. Police in the buildings unsuccessfully tried to use water cannons to fend off waves of oncoming protesters. By Tuesday night, demonstrators had situated themselves in parliament and the presidential building, declaring that they were staying put.

More than 30 demonstrators and 10 police were hospitalized, according to Russian news agency reports.

At an emergency meeting with top government officials, Voronin condemned the violence. “True patriots would not resort to this,” Voronin said. “This action has been well arranged, planned, coordinated and paid for. Its organizers are seeking bloodshed.”

In a statement, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for the restoration of calm.

“I call on all sides to refrain from violence and provocation,” Solana said. “Equally important is the respect for the inalienable right for assembly of peaceful demonstrators.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-07-09 1905EDT

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