Tens of thousands of Moldovans have rallied in the heart of the capital Chisinau in the biggest street protests in memory, demanding the resignation of the president and early elections over a $1bn bank fraud that has hit living standards.

The protesters streamed to Chisinau's central square outside the main government building from all regions of the ex-Soviet state on Sunday.

They demanded the resignation of pro-European Union President Nicolae Timofti, chanting: "Victory! Bring the one billion back home!"

Police put their numbers at between 35,000 and 40,000 though the organisers put their estimates at three times as many.

In a scam that has exposed endemic corruption and highlighted the power of oligarch groups in the country of 3.5 million, $1bn has disappeared from the banking system - roughly one-eighth of Moldova's gross domestic output.

The fraud has caused a rapid depreciation in the national currency, the leu, stoking inflation and hurting living standards.

It has also tarnished the image of the pro-Europe ruling class for ordinary Moldovans, many of whom struggle by on a family income of about $300 a month, though many protesters carried pro-EU flags indicating they were not against the country's policy of European integration.

Shaken confidence

The banking scam has also shaken the confidence of Western allies and international lenders which help keep Moldova's economy afloat and EU budgetary support for the country has been put on hold until the affair has been cleared up.

One prime minister, Chiril Gaburici, resigned earlier this year in a bizarre row over the validity of his school diplomas that was linked to the banking scam.

The mass rallies will be a setback for Valeriu Strelet, whose appointment in July to succeed Gaburici opened the door to renewed dealings with international lenders including the IMF.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency in August, he said Moldova would step up efforts to try to trace the missing $1bn and bring the money back to Moldova from bank accounts abroad.

Strelet later on Sunday appeared outside the government building and said he would study the demands put forth by protest leaders.

Source: Reuters