City Retaken From Rebels, Afghans Say

Times Staff Writer

President Najibullah of Afghanistan announced Monday that government forces have recaptured the provincial capital of Kunduz, lost last week to Muslim rebels when Soviet forces withdrew and the local garrison fled.

“The rebels have been wiped out in Kunduz,” Najibullah told a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital. “Kunduz is now in the hands of the Afghan armed forces.”

For Najibullah’s beleaguered government, the victory was an important demonstration of its ability to hold its own against the rebel moujahedeen, who are now on the offensive as Soviet troops pull out of the country.


Half of the 100,300 Soviet troops in Afghanistan three months ago (at least 115,000, by Washington’s count) have now been withdrawn, according to Soviet officials, under an agreement reached in April among Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and the United States on measures to settle the 10-year Afghan civil war.

Had government troops failed to retake Kunduz, a town of 30,000 only 40 miles south of the Soviet border on a main road from Kabul, their ability to hold many other strategic areas would have been put in question.

But Najibullah’s words, which were reported in Soviet media, were dramatically undercut Monday as the moujahedeen rocketed Kabul from nearby hills while he was addressing the news conference, in a demonstration of the rebels’ ability to strike the capital with near impunity, as they do several times a week.

One of the rockets hit a residential area and killed six people, Afghan officials reported later.

Almost Daily Assaults

Such rocket attacks have grown into almost daily assaults, sometimes leaving 10 or more people dead. They are part of an effort by the moujahedeen , who are backed by Pakistan and the United States, to destroy Afghans’ confidence in their government’s ability to defend them as Soviet forces pull out.

The rockets’ impact is psychological and political rather than military, but nonetheless substantial, according to Soviet analysts familiar with the Afghan war.

“How safe can you feel when those rockets come crashing down on your head every day?” the military correspondent for a Soviet newspaper asked over the weekend. “I know that most all they will do is frighten, and I am still frightened that one is going to land on me.”

The Soviet Union has withdrawn almost all Soviet dependents from Kabul and other Afghan centers in the last three months, sources in Moscow said, and is now also reducing the number of civilian advisers stationed there.

According to Soviet military sources, the latest intelligence indicates that the rebels have at least 1,500 Chinese-made rockets in position to bombard Kabul.

‘Formidable’ Firepower

“The amount of firepower that the (moujahedeen) opposition is building up around Kabul is truly formidable,” one well-informed Soviet specialist said.

“From what we see now,” he continued, “it is almost as if they want to turn Kabul into a Dien Bien Phu--a defeat like that the Vietnamese inflicted on the French--in order to drive us completely from the country.”

The official Soviet news agency Tass, reporting from Kabul, said Monday that the rebels have captured Shakardar district, about 25 miles from the capital, and will now be in a better position to rocket the city.

Many Western, Pakistani and guerrilla sources have predicted that Kabul’s Communist government will fall soon after the Soviet soldiers have completed their withdrawal next February. Day-by-day developments are being examined closely for confirmation--or refutation--of this theory of “imminent collapse.”

Second Stage Delayed

The second stage of the withdrawal apparently is being deferred until November to permit the government forces time to consolidate their position in the vacuum left by the initial Soviet pullout.

Under the agreement signed in Geneva in April, all Soviet forces are to leave Afghanistan by Feb. 15, more than nine years after they first intervened in support of the Marxist government in Kabul.

A map published Monday in the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda showed the remaining Soviet soldiers deployed along only two evacuation routes to the Soviet border: one from Kabul in the northeast and the other from Shindand via Herat in the west. Soviet military commanders said over the weekend that the withdrawal has pulled Soviet troops out of 25 of Afghanistan’s 31 provinces.

Analysts in Pakistan, where the guerrillas have their bases, acknowledged Monday that almost all provincial capitals remain under the Afghan government’s control despite repeated guerrilla efforts to seize and hold them.

Heavy Bombardment

Those that they have captured were abandoned almost immediately after heavy Soviet aerial bombardments and government counterattacks. The guerrillas do claim to control much of the rural countryside.

The battle for Kunduz--where the moujahedeen apparently had hoped that a victory would give them important momentum--began almost immediately after Soviet troops pulled out early last week, according to diplomatic sources in Moscow and Kabul.

In what appears to have been a carefully planned, well-rehearsed assault aimed at capturing headlines as well as the town, several hundred rebels attacked just two days after the last Soviet unit left, according to specialists following developments in Afghanistan.

The local troops defending it fled in panic, leaving behind a large supply of weapons, according to these sources. A crack, 2,000-member government unit was then sent over the weekend to recapture the town and quickly did so, although heavy casualties were reported.

The commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov, acknowledged at a weekend news conference that Kunduz had fallen to the rebels and added that his troops would not return to help retake it.

Kunduz, which lies beyond the Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul, was a government stronghold until late 1986. At that time, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles supplied by the United States were brought to the mountainous area by the rebels and used to shoot down numerous Soviet and Afghan planes, making the region disputed territory in the civil war.