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Moscow's missed opportunity

There is no ready explanation why the Soviet Union departed from its usual pattern and refused to help end the hijacking of an airliner when it was on the ground in Kabul. But one thing can be said: the Russians missed an opportunity both to win a bit of international good will and to score points with the Pakistani government with whom they would like to promote an Afghan-Pakistani accommodation. From Moscow's view, the incident seems to have been a diplomatic bust.

The Soviet Union has been a firm opponent of international hijacking. It stands much to lose itself by any faint-heartedness in dealing with air piracy. Yet when the recently hijacked airliner landed in Afghanistan, the Russians did not for some time condemn the act and, according to the US State Department, even permitted the Pakistani hijackers to obtain automatic weapons in Kabul. One can only imagine the headlines around the world if the Soviets had tried to thwart the hijackers. As it is, the Russians can pardon the world's skepticism that they will act in the collective interest if this does not suit their own political purposes.

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What, in the given case, were the Russians up to? Were they, to their embarrassment, simply stymied by their own Afghan clients? Some diplomats suggest they may have tried to persuade the Kabul regime to get the plane out. As the Russians are learning, however, the Afghans are not the easiest people in the world to deal with. Was there among the Pakistani prisoners exchanged for release of the hijacked passengers someone whom the Soviet leaders wanted to get out? Or was Soviet lack of cooperation in ending the hijacking in line with a general policy of keeping the political pot stirred in Pakistan by courting President Zia's opponents?

It's an enigma, and few pretend to fathom the Byzantine politics of that remote region. But it is regrettable that, when it had the chance, Moscow chose not to exert its influence against air terrorism and to show that its support of client regimes did not extend to disregard of international conventions. The Russians , too, make mistakes.

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