War is absurd, says Russian pilot shot down over Georgia

Shaun Walker
Saturday 16 August 2008 00:00

Most of the patients in the labyrinthine Gudushauri Hospital on the eastern outskirts of Tbilisi are being treated for injuries suffered during the Russian invasion, with more than 600 people admitted in the past few days.

But in one corridor, sealed off by eight black-clad guards armed with Kalashnikov rifles, there were two patients very different from the rest.

Vyacheslav Markovich and Igor Zinov were not fleeing from the Russian attack, they were leading it. On 9 August, their planes were hit by anti-aircraft fire, forcing them to eject and parachute to the ground. Georgia claims to have destroyed 15 planes during the conflict, killing two Russian pilots and capturing a further two during the first days of the conflict.

Georgia intends to negotiate with Russia to exchange them for captured Georgian soldiers, the Interior Ministry said.

The Russian patients said they were being treated well. Both are bed-bound and are held in separate rooms, although their guards have kept them updated on the progress of the war.

Flying Officer Zinov, 50, who suffered more serious injuries than his compatriot, refused to be interviewed, saying that he was in pain and did not want to talk. He confirmed that he was being treated well by Georgian doctors and had been visited by representatives of the Orthodox Church and the Red Cross. He suffered severe burns and was lying, unshaven and weary, in a white vest.

Major Markovich, who suffered burns to his arms and a spinal injury, had nothing but praise for his captors, who had treated him excellently from the outset. "This is an absurd situation," he said. "For thousands of years Russians and Georgians have been living together and now we have war and innocent people are dying. It was all started by politicians and I don't understand why."

Major Markovich, 42, said he had more than two decades of experience in the Russian air force, but claimed that this was his first mission into a combat zone. Although he was flying a Tupolev 22 bomber, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, he said his mission was to carry out reconnaissance over South Ossetia and Gori.

He took off from a Russian air base in Engels and said he was shot down near Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. The Georgian side insisted he was captured in Georgia "proper", near Gori.

Major Markovich said: "I landed in the forest and didn't lose consciousness, but I couldn't move. Shortly afterwards, a first aid team came to me and gave me different medicines, then I was transferred here."

He said he was questioned by Georgian security agents but not aggressively, and during his time in hospital he has been visited by the Dutch wife of the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili. "She said there will be peace, and I believe her," he said. "I have only the best things to say about the way I have been treated."

Zaza Sinauridze, the hospital's general director, said: "They spoke with me and told me that if they were taken to a hospital in Russia, they wouldn't get such good treatment." He added that both pilots were now both in a stable condition.

"There have been no concrete negotiations as yet," said Shota Utiashvili, a senior official at Georgia's Interior Ministry. "But we plan to proceed as usual in such cases and exchange these pilots for Georgian military personnel captured by the Russian army."

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