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Soviets Tell of Relief Role in Afghan Siege

December 24, 1987|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman acknowledged Wednesday that Soviet troops have had to launch a major offensive in Afghanistan this week to try to break a guerrilla siege of the town of Khost that has cut off food supplies to its residents.

Spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov, using a map and pointer, gave a highly unusual battle report in which he asserted that anti-government forces have suffered 1,500 dead and wounded since the attack was launched Monday.

Eight years after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, Moscow's volunteering of anything but positive information about the war there is regarded by Western correspondents as a significant departure.

Gerasimov said there are food shortages, widespread deprivation and even hunger in Khost, a city of 40,000 about 20 miles from the guerrillas' sanctuaries in Pakistan. The city's garrison, estimated at 8,000, has been surrounded by guerrillas in the hills ever since a Marxist-led revolution in 1978.

Guerrillas Control Road

However, the spokesman declined to say how many Soviet troops are involved or the number of Soviet dead and injured in the fighting.

"We don't provide these figures," Gerasimov said in reply to questions about Soviet casualties in the battle to open up the road to Khost or the total casualties suffered by Soviet troops since the invasion in the final days of 1979.

The road from Gardez, 70 miles away, has been under tight guerrilla control, forcing the Afghan government and Soviet troops to send in supplies by air. In recent months, however, guerrillas supplied with American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have threatened flights to the Khost airport, reducing the amount of goods delivered.

As a result of the squeeze, 8,000 tons of food for Khost has accumulated in Gardez, the spokesman acknowledged.

Afghan leader Najibullah decided last fall to launch an attack to open the Gardez-Khost road. After four days, the fighting was halted Nov. 28 after government forces captured a mountain range southeast of Gardez, including the key Sata Kandao pass, he added.

The conditions at Khost were discussed at a loya jirgah (grand council) of Afghan tribal leaders in November and the government decided to give the region's Jadran tribe 20 days to decide whether to open the route, Gerasimov said.

Tribal representatives said Sunday that the resistance forces were blocking the road and the Kabul government then decided to launch its offensive, Gerasimov told reporters.

As the spokesman described the scene, Afghan soldiers backed by Soviet troops have set out from Gardez and from Khost, hoping to link up. The two groups are less than 25 miles apart, he said.

Weapons Captured

In addition to inflicting heavy casualties on the moujahedeen, or Muslim guerrillas, the Afghans and their Soviet allies have captured a large number of weapons and other equipment, including 86,000 rockets in a single village, the Soviet spokesman said.

For the past year, Soviet leaders have been saying that they want to withdraw their estimated 115,000 troops in Afghanistan, providing that the United States and its allies stop supplying the resistance with weapons and military equipment.

Once the withdrawal begins, Moscow has said, it can be completed within a year. The United States has said it is willing to shut off supplies only if the Soviet forces are withdrawn.

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