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Russia Demands Return Of Soldier From Georgia

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia has accused Georgia of capturing one of its soldiers in breakaway South Ossetia, but Tbilisi said the man had deserted his unit to avoid mistreatment and was seeking asylum.

Russia launched a counterattack in August after Georgian forces tried to retake pro-Moscow South Ossetia, and Russia maintains several thousand troops there.

"A preliminary investigation has revealed that Aleksandr Glukhov was captured by Georgian forces in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia and taken to Tbilisi," Interfax quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Drobyshevsky as saying.

He also said Georgian officials may have pressured Glukhov after his abduction into making statements discrediting the Russian military. He demanded that Georgia hand him over immediately, the agency reported.

Earlier, Glukhov was shown on Georgian television, dressed in military uniform. He said he was asking Georgia for asylum, saying conditions were unbearable in the Russian Army.

"I am asking the president of Georgia to grant me asylum. I cannot bear the hardship Russian soldiers are experiencing here anymore. I hope asylum will be granted."

He said he was first based in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian separatist's capital, and then transferred to Akhalgori.

Georgian Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said Glukhov had handed himself over to Georgian police on January 26, 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. "He can go back to Russia, or stay in Georgia."

Akhalgori lies on the southeastern corner of South Ossetia and was controlled by Tbilisi before last year's fighting. Georgian forces are in a tense standoff there with Russian and separatist troops.