Soviets face Afghan POW dilemma

In Soviet-occupied Afghanistan Moscow faces the familiar dilemma of how to deal with kidnappers holding a hostage. At stake is the life of E. R. Okrimyuk, a Soviet geologist and counselor at the Soviet Embassy in Kabul. The insurgents who captured him in a broad daylight raid last month have offered to exchange him for 50 resistance members held in a Kabul jail.

If Moscow says''no,'' there could be lowered morale among Soviet soldiers and diplomats who lose faith in its commitment to protect Soviet representatives.

If Moscow gives in, the insurgents who are fighting to reverse the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan could be expected to compound Moscow's problem by seizing more hostages to extract still more concessions.

If the insurgents find holding prisoners such as the elderly Russian adviser useful for publicity, they may be tempted to modify their policy of ''taking no prisoners.'' The insurgents could keep Mr. Okrimyuk alive for propaganda reasons even if the Soviets refuse to publicly grant their full demands.

The kidnappers (of the Hezb-i-Islami group) have asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to arrange the prisoner exchange. If the Soviets work with the ICRC, that could be an ''opening wedge'' for a ICRC role in Afghanistan.

The Soviet-backed Afghanistan government temporarily allowed the ICRC to return in early 1980. But in mid-1980 its team was forced to leave without successfully monitoring prisoner conditions and assisting refugees.

The insurgent practice of executing almost all Soviet captives is deeply established. It is reinforced by brutal Soviet tactics that make little distinction between guerrillas and civilians. Two other Soviet captives were kept alive in an unsuccessful September bid to exchange prisoners in Pakistan. It is unknown if they are still alive.

A Russian anticommunist emigre organization, the National Labor Union (NTS), claims it has negotiated with the insurgents. The group seeks to gain release for Soviet prisoners in hopes they will join the anticommunist cause. Fully reliable independent confirmation that such captives are alive is lacking.

NTS claims to have given Russian-language stickers to rebels for plastering on Soviet vehicles and buildings. These urge Soviets to surrender to the rebels and join the anti-communist cause. NTS is said to be negotiating with insurgents , in hopes they will spare such defectors.

Soviet soldiers of Muslim Central Asian extraction have reportedly deserted to the insurgents. But there is no reliableconfirmation of the extent to which this has happened.

The Soviet attitude toward capture of their people appears to be ''those are the breaks and ''you don't bargain with terrorists,'' notes one Western specialist.

But Moscow sometimes pursues a quiet indirect dialogue with captors. The aim: maximize chances that the hostage will survive without granting public concessions or recognition to the captor.

''After all, if the hostage is killed, then everyone loses because there is no longer anything to talk about,'' one specialist suggests.

(But it is widely assumed that the Soviets will refuse any direct contact with the Afghan insurgents lest this be interpreted as political recognition.)

For the Soviets there is an indirect precedent in the case of the Soviet officer captured in Angola by South African forces in September, 1981. The officer has not been released. But both Soviets and South Africans have authorized visits by Red Cross officials to monitor conditions of captivity.

Despite Soviet reluctance to admit the ICRC to Aghanistan, Michel Veuthey, ICRC chief for international organizations, notes that ''there must be many Soviet soldiers who would welcome an ICRC presence'' to reduce the likelihood they would be tortured and executed if captured.

In an effort to improve morale Moscow could recognize such feelings amd soften its attitude toward ICRC efforts to encourage adherence to Geneva Convention standards of humane warfare. Still Soviet hard-liners might argue the threat of torture and execution if captured is an effective way of motivating Soviet soldiers to fight to the last.

Mr. Veuthey expresses cautious hope that the Okrimyuk case ''could be the beginning'' of a broader approach that helps reduce suffering on all sides.

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