Russian Soldier Asks Tbilisi For Asylum

TBILISI, Georgia -- A Russian soldier said Tuesday that he deserted from his unit in separatist South Ossetia and sought asylum in Georgia because of unbearable living conditions, including poor treatment and scarce food.

"I wasn't captured by Georgian police," Alexander Glukhov said in an interview at a McDonald's restaurant in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

"I ran away because I couldn't stand the conditions I was living in," he said. "I want to stay here."

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky said earlier that Glukhov had been "seized by Georgian agents in the Akhalgori district of South Ossetia and taken to Tbilisi." Russia demands Glukhov's immediate release, Drobyshevsky said by telephone in Moscow.

Georgian Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said Glukhov had handed himself over to Georgian police on Monday, complaining that the major of his unit had been beating him. "We did not detain him. He is free and can do whatever he wants," Utiashvili said.

Russia routed Georgia's army in a five-day war over South Ossetia in August and later recognized its independence and that of another breakaway region, Abkhazia -- moves condemned by the United States and many European countries. Russia plans to deploy about 3,700 soldiers in each region, and its forces remain in the town of Akhalgori after a brief withdrawal in October.

Glukhov, 21, said he was deployed in South Ossetia on Aug. 9, the second day of the war. "But I didn't take part in military operations myself. I was assigned to dig ditches and that sort of thing," he said.

He said that if he were to return to Russia, he would not want to resume his military service. "I'd just like to go home," he said, adding that he had not considered the consequences of his actions when he fled his unit more than a week ago.

When a reporter asked to see Glukhov's military identification card during the interview, Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Khizanishvili, who was present, said the card was at the ministry. He confirmed Glukhov's identity. Glukhov had earlier explained his reasons for deserting on Georgian television and displayed his ID.

Drobyshevsky suggested that Georgian agents had coerced Glukhov into making the televised comments.

"If a soldier is threatened or subjected to physical or emotional and psychological pressure, he could say absolutely anything," Drobyshevsky said.

(Bloomberg, Reuters)