The Moscow Olympics took yet another unusual turn today with reports and denials that members of the Afghan contingent here had told journalists they wanted to escape to the West.
Following the reports on Western television, all 24 members of Afghanistan's team were assembled today to stiffly deny them and denounce the Western press.
But the carefully staged encounter suddenly took on unexpected dimensions when a British television correspondent -- stung at the flat denial of what he had reported -- pointed a finger at a young wrestler and demanded to know if he had ever talked with the press.
"I categorically deny ever saying such a stupid thing," Ghulam Sediq Zarqar, 24, replied through an interpreter. But within minutes, the middleweight's composure melted away and teammates moved to comfort him.
The correspondent Martin Lewis of the ITN network in Britain, later said he had had at least two encounters last week. Parts of them were filmed, he said, with Afghan team members who sought him out in a bid to help find political asylum.
CBS reporter Stephen Young had a similar encounter several days ago when he was taping a piece at the Olympic village. Both newsmen cautiously reported that there were strong indications that several Afghans were seeking ways to leave their country, a virtually hopeless possibility from Moscow, the capital of a nation with closed borders.
At the press conference, Afghan team chief Ghulam Sakhi Hasani stood with contingent and branded reports that some wanted to defect as "just a mere lie."
Seven Afghan wrestlers and the basketball team defected earlier, into Pakistan and most of the Afghan national soccer team has defected to Western Europe or the United States. Most members of the men's field hockey team, Kabul confirmed last week, were abducted and apparently slain by insurgents who intercepted their bus last April as it was returning from the Soviet Union.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said through a spokesman that it had been told that some Afghans may be seeking asylum, but added that it could do nothing. Seven Siberian Pentecostalists have lived in the basement of the chancery for more than two years, stuck there because the United States has no control over Soviet emigration visas and the Pentecostalists refuse to leave unless emigration is guaranteed.
Lewis said Gosteleradio, the state media monopoly that controls access to international transmission facilities for Western television covering the Games, at first refused to transmit his obliquely worded dispatch that Tuesday for "technical reasons," but unexpectedly reversed itself the following day and allowed the dispatch to be sent via satellite.
There have been numerous similar incidents of Soviet interference with Western journalists. At noon today, Soviet secret police scuffled with four reporters in Red Square as they tried to cover a one-man protest by an Italian gay rights activist.
The activist, Vincenzo Francone, 32, of Turin, had told some reporters that he intended to handcuff himself to a stanchion near the Kremlin wall and St. Basil's Cathedral to protest Article 121 of the Soviet criminal code, which calls for up to five years in prison for homosexual activity.
The square, a vast cobbled area between the Kremlin and the Gum department store, swarmed with plain-clothesmen who tackled Francone and cameramen.
UPI bureau chief John Moody was hit twice in the groin and hustled off to a holding room inside the Kremlin, where security men furiously screamed at him that he must not cover politics, but sports NBC News cameraman Albert Stril-Rever and his crew were seized and marched to a far corner of the square, and two French reporters were struck several times.
Police confiscated all the reporters' film and videotape before releasing them about an hour later.
One reliable Western source said Francone was seen on a floor in a police substation, being pummeled and kicked by police.
Physical abuse of Western journalists has been growing since the Games opened Saturday. CBS producer Peter Kendall said his cameraman, Nick Turner, was struck from behind while waiting outside Lenin Stadium Saturday to film Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev departing at the end of the ceremonies.
Kendall said a security man told him Brezhnev could not be filmed because, "This is politics, and you're here to cover sports."
The Soviets also were angered when the news bureaus refused to participate in the Ostankino Soviet television center because the price -- in money and editorial control -- demanded by the Soviets was too high. Subsequently, the Soviets have refused to allow the news bureaus free access to press facilities at the Games, forcing the crews to purchase regular tickets to events.
The bureaus got accreditation to press facilities at the Lenin Stadium opening ceremonies at the last minute.
Police who first detained ABC News bureau chief Ann Garrels outside the stadium because she was filming soldiers later argued that she had no right to film the Olympic teams outside the stadium.
The bureaus are shipping their film and videotape by air to Frankfurt and other Western European cities, where it is transmitted by satellite to the United States.