Soviets defend air strikes against key Afghan city

Moscow confirmed yesterday that Soviet-based aircraft were used against Afghan guerrillas last month, but denied that this violated the Geneva peace agreement signed in April. Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov coupled the admission with an attack on what he alleged were Pakistan's regular and major violations of the peace settlement. The Soviet aircraft were used late in August against Afghan guerrillas operating in Kunduz. The guerrillas have reportedly been forced to withdraw from the city. In a fleeting reference to the fighting, several Soviet newspapers mentioned yesterday that the situation in the area was ``normalizing.''

Mr. Gerasimov told journalists that the Air Force operations had been carried out with the agreement of the Afghan government, but avoided an opportunity to say that Kabul had requested them.

By referring at least twice to the fact that Soviet officials and their dependents were still in the city when the attack began, Gerasimov may have been hinting that this was one of Moscow's motives for the strikes. Another reason may have been Kunduz's proximity to Mazar-i-Sharif, a city described by both Soviet and Western observers as a fallback for the pro-Soviet government, should it lose Kabul.

Some Western reports coupled news of the air strikes with speculation of a split between civilian and military leaders in Moscow over the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. So far, however, no signs of significant difference of opinion are evident here. The Soviet military has been as pessimistic, and at times more pessimistic, than many civilian leaders about the chances of a pro-Soviet regime surviving in Kabul. Talks with Soviet officials yesterday indicated that pessimism is as deep as ever.

Several Soviet newspapers on Wednesday published another sign of the growing strength of the anti-Kabul resistance: The official news agency Tass reported from the Afghan capital that one guerrilla leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, has formed what amounts to a conventional army in northeastern Afghanistan.

Gerasimov was harshly critical of what he described as Pakistan's endless violations of the Geneva agreement. If Washington had prevailed on Pakistan to cease its military assistance, he said, there would never have been any fighting around Kunduz.

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