The Afghan war goes on: biggest battle near Kabul since 1979
In what are considered to be the heaviest clashes in the Kabul region since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Soviet-backed government troops and resistance forces fought a three-day battle early last week in the Paghman area, 12 miles from Kabul. Severe casualties were reported, particularly among civilians.
According to Western diplomatic sources based in Kabul, Soviet and Afghan officials have for some time been irked by the pressence of substantial numbers of resistance groups effectively controlling the Paghman foothills.
On July 13, the sources maintain, 300 Afghan military cadets passing through the Paghman district were attacked and surrounded by resistance forces. Using bullhorns, the mujahideen persuaded some 200 cadets to surrender. At least 30, and according to some reports 70 or more, of those who remained were killed.
In a retaliatory attack, the sources said, Soviet and Afghan armored troops supported by helicopter gunships and aircraft shelled, bombed, and strafed the region. Many villagers who tried to flee into the nearby hills were apparently gunned down. With increasing numbers of mujahideen brought in as reinforcements from other areas, bitter fighting continued until the afternoon of July 15, when Soviet and Afghan troops began pulling back.
Witnesses reported several dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers as well as at least two helicopters from the combined Soviet and Afghan government force destroyed by the resistance. Diplomatic sources estimate that several hundred Afghan and Soviet troops may have been killed.
Losses of the mujahideen were put at between 50 and 100 dead. Civilian deaths, however, are believed to number in the hundreds. Reliable sources are quoted as having seen hundreds of civilian corpses in piles after the fighting.
According to diplomatic reports, the military operation is believed to have failed to clear the area of mujahideen forces and may even have resulted in a strengthening of their position with the arrival of fellow "freedom fighters" from other regions such as Parwan, Wardak, and Bamiyan. The high civilian losses, however, may have made it more difficult for them to operate openly.
Diplomats also report a slight drop in resistance activity inside Kabul, but maintain that assassinations continue.
The sources further report that Soviet troops have begun patrolling the streets of certain parts of Kabul in the daytime.
Special correspondent Carol Honsa reports from New Delhi:
Furious and grief-stricken Kabul parents have accused the Afghanistan government of sending young, ill-equipped high-school-age military cadets to their deaths in the antirebel operation near the capital city, according to Western diplomatic reports.
The cadets were students at the Kabul Military Academy -- a combination high school and military training facility.
Although reports differed in their estimates of cadet casualties, both confirmed that relatives who came to a Kabul hospital to claim the bodies had openly and volubly abused the Babrak Karmal government for improperly sending the youths into action.
The government acknowledged the death of at least 30 cadets by showing their bodies on government-controlled television on Sunday, a diplomat noted."This was an astonishing admission, and the probable explanation is that the death of so many young cadets could not be concealed," he said.
Another diplomatic source said that government authorities had to isolate the upset relatives until they calmed down; later they praised the dead cadets as "heroic martyrs" who had successfully carried out their patriotic tasks.
A regional analyst familiar with the Kabul Military Academy said that normally only 40 to 50 percent of its students join the military as junior officers after graduation; others attend because the academy is regarded as a superior high school.
The government's deployment of cadets in an area known for heavy fighting over the past several weeks points up the increasing difficulty of mustering local manpower for antirebel operations.
The Afghan Army has been decimated by battlefield casualties, desertions, and defections to the rebel side. Students are theoretically exempt from the draft, but reports of press gangs seizing military-age youths for forcible Army service are common. Even Afghan students at schools in the Soviet Union, back in Afghanistan for summer vacation, are being rounded up and sent to the front despite their student exemptions, according to a report cited by Western diplomatic sources.
Two independent diplomatic reports relate that Soviet helicopter gunships mistakenly fired on their own and Afghan government troops in the confusion during the re taliatory attack the day after the cadets' foray.