Belarus army deserter granted asylum in Lithuania

A Belarusian army deserter said Monday he had been granted asylum by Lithuania after he fled his homeland, having refused to use violence against protesters opposed to strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.

"I was told I was granted asylum on Friday," former soldier Stepan Zakharchenko told AFP.

The 22-year-old said he fled Belarus last year after refusing to swear an oath to shoot protesters.

Zakharchenko claims authorities beat him and said he feared he would be charged with high treason, or even killed, were he to be deported to Belarus.

Initially European Union member state Lithuania rejected Zakharchenko's asylum request but was ordered by a national court to review its decision in October.

Senior Lithuanian government members also urged a rethink, pointing to Lukashenko's repressive regime.

Zakharchenko told AFP that a new ruling granted him a five-year permit to live in the EU, which Lithuania joined in 2004.

"Now I plan to look for a job, like everyone else," he said.

Immigration department officials declined to comment, but did not deny Zakharchenko's claim of asylum.

Dubbed Europe's last dictator by the US, Lukashenko has been widely criticised for a string of repressive measures against the opposition which began in December 2010 with his massive crackdown against peaceful protesters who claimed his re-election was rigged.

The 27-member EU has since slapped asset freezes and travel bans on nearly 250 senior Belarus officials. Over 30 firms are also targeted by an EU asset freeze.