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Red Cross acts as middleman in Afghanistan POW deals

By Edward GirardetSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 1982


Three years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Kremlin has yet to admit that its troops are directly involved in an undeclared war.

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Thus the presence of a small, but growing, contingent of Soviet prisoners-of-war in Switzerland has placed Moscow in an awkward position.

Although both the Soviet and Afghan governments continue to dismiss the mujahideen (''freedom fighters'') as ''bandits'' or ''terrorists,'' Moscow's willingness to officially negotiate prisoner exchanges through the International Committee of the Red Cross has in effect resulted in a de jure recognition of the Afghan resistance.

So far, only seven Soviet prisoners have been brought to Switzerland. But the Red Cross expects more to arrive in the months ahead. The names, ranks and places of origin of at least 50 Soviets captured since the intervention have been communicated to the Red Cross and several other relief organizations. The list also includes roughly half a dozen who have been executed by the mujahideen. All told, an estimated 200-300 Soviet prisoners and defectors, many of them Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians and other Soviet nationalities, are believed to be captives of the resistance.

As in any war, Afghanistan has not been spared the horrors of atrocities against prisoners on both sides. While the communists have executed, tortured or otherwise maltreated Afghans suspected of guerrilla affiliations, the resistance has often summarily killed its Soviet captives.

The first documented case of a captured member of the Soviet armed forces emerged only in the summer of 1981 when Mikhail Semgonovich Gorchniski, a Ukrainian fighter pilot, was picked up by Hezb-i-Islami Partiansa of the Younis Khales faction after his MIG plane was shot down over Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan.

Concerned Swiss Red Cross officials had already begun secret negotiations on possible prisoner transfers with various resistance organizations long before Mr. Gorchniski's capture. While most of the Afghan groups reacted favorably, the Soviets told the Red Cross that they had no intention of making any deals with ''terrorists''.

Aware of the political capital that could be made out of showing off a Soviet prisoner, the guerrillas smuggled Gorchniski into Pakistan where he was hidden in a local ''safehouse.'' But a Soviet prisoner on Pakistani soil was the last thing the sensitive Islamabad regime wanted. It forced the guerrillas to hand him over to the government who in turn discreetly gave him back to the Soviets. The Afghans were furious. The move also offered little incentive for the resistance to keep captured Soviets alive.

Several months later, however, an elderly Soviet geologist was captured by an urban guerrilla commando in a daring daylight raid in Kabul. This time, the Afghans did not bring him to Pakistan but detained him in a clandestine resistance base well inside Afghanistan. The mujahideen contacted the Red Cross representative in Peshawar and proposed to exchange their prisoner for 50 Afghan prisoners.

This posed to the Soviets the dilemma of whether or not to deal with a group of resistance fighters. If they failed to negotiate, they ran the risk of aggravating further the already poor morale among their occupation troops in Afghanistan. But if they did, it was certain that the mujahideen would fully exploit the issue for propaganda purposes and might indulge in more kidnapping. Moscow refused to bargain.

As for the Red Cross, although fully supportive of any attempts to save prisoners, it advised the resistance against exchanges under such circumstances. Arguing that nothing would prevent the Kabul authorities from simply filling their prisons with people from off the streets, it also feared that furnishing a list of captives would only provide the communists with a ''who's who'' of resistance figures.

This is exactly what happened. The Soviets shot the 50 named prisoners, including the son of Younis Khales, a prominent resistance leader. Six months after the geologist's capture, the guerrillas reported his death by execution although some sources maintain that he died of natural causes.