By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters blocked the exits to Moldova's parliament building on Thursday in an attempt to detain former prime minister Vlad Filat, who has been implicated in the theft of $1 billion from the banking system.
The fraud, which has weakened the local currency and hit living standards in Europe's poorest country, has caused mass public protest. Thousands of activists have camped out in central Chisinau since early September, demanding the resignation of senior government officials and early elections.
Earlier on Thursday, Chief Prosecutor Corneliu Gurin asked parliament to remove Filat's immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker. Filat has denied involvement in the fraud.
"We have irrefutable evidence that Filat, while prime minister, was directly involved in the withdrawal of money from the banking system," Gurin said in his written appeal to parliament.
Last November, three of Moldova's largest banks were placed under special administration after they were reduced to insolvency by the hemorrhage of the $1 billion - equivalent to around one eighth of gross domestic product - through a web of toxic loans, asset swaps and shareholder deals.
Filat, who heads the pro-European Liberal Democrat Party of Moldova (LDPM) and served as prime minister from 2009 to 2013, on Thursday denied having any association with the fraud.
"This is just cheap show. I can prove my innocence in court," he told journalists.
The fraud has held up the disbursement of valuable budget support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
It has also damaged the image of pro-Europe leaders who have done little to halt economic mismanagement or shake off graft accusations in a country where the average family income amounts to little more than $300 a month.
Protesters have promised to camp out in the capital until their demands for a new president and government are met. They also want officials from Moldova's central bank, prosecutors' office and anti-corruption bureau to be held accountable for the banking swindle.
Central bank governor Dorin Dragutanu announced his resignation last month, but denied responsibility for the fraud.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Mark Heinrich)