Asia Crisis

Russia urges fugitive soldier to leave Georgia

MOSCOW, Feb 9 (Reuters) - A Russian soldier who embarrassed commanders by disappearing from his unit and turning up in Georgia will not be punished if he gives himself up, the Russian military said on Monday.

Sergeant Alexander Glukhov disappeared last month from his unit in breakaway South Ossetia and said he wanted asylum in Georgia, angering Moscow and handing a public relations coup to the pro-Western government in Tbilisi.

Georgia and Russia fought a war last year over the separatist region. Tbilisi's forces tried to retake South Ossetia, unleashing a massive counter-attack by Russian troops.

"Russia's military command has no disciplinary complaints against sergeant Glukhov, and if he returns to Russia he will continue his service, but in a different unit," Colonel Igor Konashenkov, aide to the commander of Russia's Ground Forces, told Reuters.

Georgia paraded the 21-year-old sergeant in January, shortly after he disappeared from his unit in South Ossetia.

Dressed in jeans and trainers and eating a "Big Mac" hamburger, Glukhov told Reuters at a McDonald's outlet in Tbilisi last month he had asked for asylum in Georgia, saying conditions with Russian forces in South Ossetia were unbearable.

The Russian army had earlier accused Georgia of blocking Glukhov's return, saying he could face prosecution as a deserter.

Konashenkov said Glukhov's mother had arrived in South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali on Monday after meeting the commander of the 58th army to which his unit belongs.

"She said she is afraid to go to Tbilisi and therefore she asked the Russian military to help organise a meeting with her son either in no-man's land or in a Georgian locality that is close to South Ossetia," he said.

He said the Russian military has offered to arrange such a meeting in the Georgian village of Eredvi, near South Ossetia, but had so far received no reply from Tbilisi.

"We received information that Glukhov's mother is now in Tskhinvali and that her son was offered (the opportunity) to go there and meet her," Shota Khizanishvili, a Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman, told Reuters.

"We are not against that. But he himself is against that, fearing he will be arrested there and taken to Russia." (Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi) (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Sophie Hares)