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Soviets Hedge on Feb. 15 Afghan Pullout Date

Times Staff Writer

The Soviet Union warned Tuesday that it might delay the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan beyond Feb. 15, the date by which it had agreed to complete the pullout.

Word of this possibility came from Yuli M. Vorontsov, a first deputy Soviet foreign minister and the Kremlin’s Afghanistan trouble-shooter, who returned to Moscow after touring the region. He met with officials of Pakistan and Iran and officials of the rebel forces fighting the Afghan government.

Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in late 1979 in an effort to prop up a pro-Soviet government. As part of U.N.-mediated accords signed last year in Geneva, the Soviets agreed to remove the troops, estimated at 115,000, in stages. About 50,000 were withdrawn last year, and the withdrawal was to be complete by Feb. 15.

Vorontsov told a news conference Tuesday in Moscow that it is too early to set up a firm schedule for removing the last of the troops because of continued rebel attacks on Afghan government forces and the unresolved issue of a political settlement.

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The Soviets and the Afghan government say their troops have honored a cease-fire since Jan. 1.

Vorontsov, referring to the Geneva agreement, said there is “a serious danger that things might shape up so that the Soviet Union will be unable to do what the Soviet Union agreed to do as a matter of principle.”

Any delay in the withdrawal would be extremely unpopular in the Soviet Union.

In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, “We still expect them to meet the deadline.”

“We have seen the same kind of statements over the last several months, going as far back as September and October (and) during the meeting President Reagan had with (Soviet President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev in New York,” Fitzwater added. “They have continually raised these concerns because of the situation there. But we simply want to hold them to their commitment.”

State Department spokesman Charles Redman said, “There’s certainly no reason that they can’t be out by Feb. 15. Their withdrawal has resumed, for some days now. So, as a consequence, we certainly expect them to be out.”

Responding to Vorontsov’s complaints about U.S. aid to the guerrillas, Redman said U.S. policy remains that Washington will back the rebels for as long as Moscow supplies the Afghan army.

Meanwhile, news agency reports from Pakistan on Tuesday quoted Western diplomats as saying the Soviets appeared to be making withdrawal preparations.

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The reports said that for the past week, there have been night-time departures of Soviet aircraft from Kabul, the Afghan capital, that the Soviet military hospital has been closed and that almost all of the Soviet military advisers have left.


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