MOSCOW, Jan 17 (Reuters) — A former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who fought in Ukraine said he has fled to Norway and is seeking asylum in fear for his life after witnessing the killing and mistreatment of Russian prisoners brought to front lines.
Andrei Medvedev, who joined Wagner on July 6, 2022 on a four-month contract, said in a video posted by the Gulagu.net rights group that he had crossed the northern Arctic border into Norway before being detained by Norwegian police.
Medvedev, an orphan who joined the Russian army and served time in prison before moving on to Wagner, said he had slipped away from the group after witnessing the killing of captured deserters from Wagner.
«I am afraid of dying in agony,» Medvedev told Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the Gulagu.net rights group, which said it had helped Medvedev leave Russia after he approached the group in fear for his life.
He said he crossed the snowy border, climbing through barbed-wire fences and evading a border patrol with dogs, and heard guards firing shots as he ran through a forest and over thin and breaking ice into Norway.
Local Norwegian police said a foreign citizen had been arrested on the night of Thursday to Friday after illegally crossing the Russian-Norwegian frontier, north of the Arctic Circle, and was seeking asylum.
His Norwegian lawyer said Medvedev was now in the «Oslo area» but did not give details. «What is important for him (Medvedev) is that immigration authorities clarify his status as soon as possible,» lawyer Brynjulf Risnes told Reuters.
Kripos, the Norwegian national criminal police service which has responsibility for investigating war crimes, said on Tuesday it wanted to question Medvedev.
«He has himself explained that he was a part of the Wagner group and it is interesting for Kripos to have information about this period,» Kripos said in a statement.
«Medvedev has a status as a witness.»
Risnes said Medvedev had not yet spoken with the Norwegian security police, PST, and no agreement for an interview had been reached. «I am sure that will be a question at some point,» said Risnes, who declined to say where Medvedev fought in Ukraine.
«He says he has taken part in battle, which he says were clear battle situations …, and that he has not been in contact with civilians,» said Risnes.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Medvedev had worked in a Norwegian unit of Wagner and had «mistreated prisoners».
«Be careful, he’s very dangerous,» Prigozhin said in a statement released by his spokeswoman. He did not address the claims of killings or mistreatment of prisoners in the statement.
In interviews with Gulagu, Medvedev said he grew disaffected after his contract was repeatedly extended by Wagner without his consent. He said he had witnessed the killing and mistreatment of Russian prisoners who were brought to the front by Wagner.
Medvedev said losses were very high after Wagner began sending large numbers of prisoners to the Ukrainian front in the second half of 2022. Wagner’s internal security service handed out extreme punishment, Medvedev said.
He said a man who was shown in November being executed with a sledgehammer had been part of his unit.
The Wagner statement did not address Medvedev’s accounts of punishment and of battlefield losses, or that his contract was repeatedly extended.
Prigozhin has said Wagner is an effective fighting force because it had extensive battlefield experience, is well supplied, has a meritocratic command system in which all can contribute, and «the most severe discipline».
Russia sent tens of thousands of armed forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it calls a «special military operation» to «denazify» its neighbour and protect Russian security.