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Soviets Threaten to Raid Afghan Pakistan Bases

Times Staff Writer

A massive explosion last month in an arms magazine at an Afghan rebel base inside Pakistan has triggered new Soviet warnings to Pakistan suggesting that the Soviet Union may be considering military raids across the border against such bases.

Soviet diplomats say that at least 12 Soviet prisoners of war died in the explosion. A senior Soviet diplomat said in an interview here Tuesday that “the Pakistanis are playing with fire” for allowing the moujahedeen rebels to conduct anti-Soviet operations inside Afghanistan from the bases in Pakistan and to hold Soviet prisoners here.

The diplomat, one level below ambassadorial rank, asked that his name not be used but said his statements could be attributed to the Soviet Embassy. The 90-minute interview took place at the embassy.

Pro-Soviet Regime

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Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan in late 1979 and installed a pro-Soviet government in Kabul, the capital. Since then, they and Afghan government forces have been battling the moujahedeen guerrillas. Moujahedeen--meaning warriors of the Islamic faith--is the generic name given to the loosely confederated rebels, possibly numbering 200,000.

“We know the concrete locations of each of the moujahedeen bandit training camps,” the Soviet diplomat said. “We also have maps to show their locations.

“So far,” he said, pausing for emphasis, “we have not come across the border in ‘hot pursuit.’ ”

The diplomat, who accompanied the Soviet ambassador here to a May 11 meeting with Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, said they had warned Zia of the consequences of holding Soviet soldiers prisoner in Pakistani territory.

In the interview, the diplomat repeatedly suggested, without directly saying it, that the Soviets are considering entering Pakistan in pursuit of the moujahedeen.

War of Men and Words

The threats are part of an escalating war of men and words inside Afghanistan and along its borders with Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan--home for nearly 3 million Afghan refugees, about 20% of the total population of Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion five years ago--has borne the brunt of the threats.

Last July, the estimated 120,000 Soviet troops inside Afghanistan began intensified operations, particularly along the Pakistan border. Pakistan government officials say that Soviet and Afghan aircraft frequently fly over Pakistani territory and bomb some border locations.

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In March, at the Moscow funeral of Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, warned Zia to stop helping the moujahedeen by giving them safe haven inside Pakistan.

Zia later told an Indian journalist: “The message was that he (Gorbachev) felt Pakistan was interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and he said, ‘Lay off.’ ”

Publicly, Zia has not expressed fears of Soviet raids into Pakistani territory, and most Western diplomats discount the threats as hyperbole.

“They (such raids) would be difficult logistically,” one of the diplomats said Wednesday. “You would have to come through in force. You would have to take on a confrontation and you have to get out. Very unlikely they could do it without taking casualties. It would also be bad public relations. They could not do it without looking like the big guy taking on the little guy.”

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Soviet anger has been heightened by the explosion April 27 in the village of Zungli Ner near the town of Badaber in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province.

Despite Pakistani government denials, most Western diplomats interviewed believe that the blast did result in the deaths of 12 Soviet prisoners and possibly 12 more Afghan army prisoners who were holed up in the arms depot after an escape attempt.

Rights Abuses Reported

The incident coincided with an extremely critical report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission on the situation in Afghanistan. The report did not name the Soviet Union, but it accused a “foreign power” of thousands of human rights abuses inside Afghanistan.

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Western diplomats say that Afghan radio and television coverage have portrayed the Zungli Ner incident as a “heroic attempt to escape from a bandit military camp.”

During the period of May 13-20, the sources said, there was daily commentary on the broadcast media and in newspapers on the episode, including “a campaign of letters to the editor, and performers writing and dedicating songs to the heroes of Badaber on radio and television.”

According to the Soviet diplomat interviewed here this week, the escaping Soviet servicemen asked to be turned over to the Soviet Embassy in Islamabad or to Pakistani authorities. Instead, he said, Pakistani military officials on the scene participated in their “massacre.”

Soviets Demanded Punishment

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After the explosion, which reportedly could be heard 10 miles away, the Soviets demanded that those responsible for the deaths be punished, that the remains of the Soviet prisoners be handed over to the embassy here and that all other Soviet servicemen inside Pakistan be turned over to either Pakistani or Soviet officials.

In its response, the Pakistani government denied that any Soviet troops were killed in the explosion, which a government spokesman said was caused by agents provocateurs.

“We have firm proof that there are still other Soviet servicemen in Pakistan territory,” the Soviet diplomat said in the interview. “Our numbers differ from 50 to 120. We know the bandits transfer the prisoners in and out of Afghanistan so you can’t be sure how many are on Pakistan land. But they are, and the Pakistan authorities know that we know they are.”

At Zungli Ner, early on the morning of April 27, the villagers heard staccato bursts of gunfire at the nearby Afghan rebel base. Then the sky above the small collection of mud-walled dwellings exploded into a fiery rain of rockets and twisted sheets of metal and splintered wood.

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‘Rockets All Around’

“We could not see because of all the burning around us,” said Rehan Khan, a village leader in the area, about 50 miles southeast of the Khyber Pass. “We looked up and there were rockets on the right and left of us, all around. We thought we were all finished.”

Although reports of the explosion differ slightly, the main account remains basically the same, whether told by a village leader in Zungli Ner or a political leader in Peshawar, where most of the moujahedeen groups are headquartered. That account includes these details:

Several months ago, about two dozen prisoners of war were taken to the Zungli camp. The camp, on 20 acres of elevated barren land near a canal that carries water to the area from the Kabul River, has sentry posts at four corners manned by men with Kalashnikov assault rifles.

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Village children, allowed to play along the edges of the camp, say they often saw the Soviet soldiers in the camp. Village leaders nearby and Afghan rebel sources said at least two of the Soviet soldiers were of Asian descent, from one of the Muslim-populated Soviet territories that border Afghanistan. The others--there were at least nine--appeared to be light-skinned Europeans.

Arms Shipment Delivered

Recently, a large arms shipment--including unusually large supplies of rocket-propelled grenades and Chinese-made 107-millimeter Katyusha rockets--was delivered to the camp. The United States, through a covert program of the CIA, is a major supplier of such weapons to the Afghan guerrillas.

After the explosion, many of these weapons, including unexploded shells, were showered over neighboring villages. Several of the rocket-propelled grenades bearing Chinese markings were shown to a visiting reporter by villagers.

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According to several sources, some of the Soviet soldiers managed to persuade their captors, who were members of the Jamiat-i-Islami faction of the moujahedeen, that they had converted to the Islamic faith. The moujahedeen let down their guard and, on the night of April 26, the Soviet soldiers as well as some Afghan prisoners managed to seize weapons and take control of the earth-walled arms magazine in the center of the camp.

Gunfire Broke Out

Villagers said that on that night, civilians staying in the rebel camp left hurriedly, saying the Soviets had taken over the camp. Sometime that night, the leader of the Jamiat group, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani, went to the camp and attempted to negotiate with the Soviet soldiers. Rabbani, they said, slept that night in a large guest house in the village.

Early the next morning, exchanges of gunfire broke out between the prisoners and the moujahedeen in the camp, witnesses said. The Afghanistan news agency described it as “unequal combat and hours-long exchange of fire.” After that, the agency added, 24 Afghan and Soviet soldiers “heroically perished after the arms depot exploded.”

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At about 8:30 a.m. on April 27, by most accounts, the arms magazine blew up and explosions continued intermittently until noon.


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