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Red Cross acts as middleman in Afghanistan POW deals

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

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''.

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