By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) - Vice-President Joe Biden on Friday threw U.S. weight behind solving a long-standing separatist dispute over a rebel territory in Moldova and voiced support for the country's pro-Europe course.
In a seven-hour stop in the ex-Soviet republic, one of Europe's poorest states, Biden also called for renewed efforts to end human trafficking. Hundreds of young Moldovan women have been forced into prostitution after being tricked by traffickers into going abroad.
Wedged between Ukraine and European Union member Romania, Moldova looks to wine and vegetable exports and inflows of cash from thousands of Moldovans working abroad to sustain an economy that is heavily reliant on Russian energy imports.
Despite its poverty, Moldova is pressing for association status with the EU and has received plaudits from Brussels for its economic reform plans.
After meeting Prime Minister Vlad Filat, the leading figure in a three-party pro-Western coalition, Biden said the United States fully supported Moldova's goal of integration into the European mainstream.
"We believe Moldova's future lies with Europe. You are a European country. You should be, and you will be, fully integrated into European institutions," he said.
Though Filat's coalition emerged the winner from a parliamentary election in November, beating the once powerful communists, it is not clear if it can overcome a parliamentary gridlock which has left it without a full-time president for more than 18 months and delayed vital reforms.
Biden, who arrived from Moscow and is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Moldova, also offered U.S. support over Transdniestria, a strip of land on Moldova's eastern border which has been controlled by pro-Moscow separatists for the past 20 years.
EU heavyweight Germany last year sought to press Russia, a key player in any Transdniestria settlement, to back a new initiative to solve the dispute -- but this petered out.
Biden called for a resumption of "formal negotiations with a real agenda." But he said the United States would only approve a settlement that recognized Moldova's sovereignty over the mainly Russian-speaking territory.
"America supports a settlement, but not any settlement: a settlement that preserved Moldova's sovereignty and Moldova's territorial integrity. Transdniestria lies within Moldova," he said.
Later in a public speech in central Chisinau he criticized the high level of corruption in Moldova and called for moves to stamp out the trafficking of Moldovan women into prostitution.
"Remember that there can't be democracy without an end to human trafficking and the will to fight corruption," he said.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)