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Guerrillas Blocking Soviet Effort to Break Khost Siege

December 22, 1987 GMT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Moslem guerrillas surrounding the southern Afghanistan city of Khost have repulsed Soviet reinforcements trying to break the siege, Western diplomats said Tuesday.

The guerrillas have encircled government troops in the city and are using unexploded rockets as mines and shooting down helicopters, said the diplomats.

Citing reliable reports, the diplomats said the situation in Khost has worsened in recent days. The diplomats spoke in Islamabad on condition of anonymity.

Supplies to the city have been reduced or suspended altogether, they said.

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Khost has been under siege for several years but only in recent months have the guerrillas managed to cut off supplies to the estimated 10,000 Afghan soldiers. Many observers say there are no Soviet troops inside Khost except for a handful of advisers.

On Dec. 16, a Soviet convoy advancing toward Khost from the provincial capital of Gardez ″ran into a guerrilla trap,″ the diplomats said. They added the guerrillas used unexploded rockets as mines to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles in the Sate Kandaw area near Khost.

Two days earlier, they said, the guerrillas downed two Soviet helicopters providing air cover for Soviet and Afghan forces near Khost, 75 miles east of the capital of Kabul.

The Soviets have been trying to break the siege by fighting the guerrillas around the city. Afghan President Najib served an ultimatum to the guerrillas on Nov. 29 to lift the blockade within 20 days or face stern action.

Soviet media reported Saturday the Afghan army launched a major offensive to break the siege. There was no word what results it achieved.

The diplomats said few detailed reports of the fighting around Khost have emerged. They said all their sources agreed that the town still was besieged, that many civilians have fled the area, and that food is scarce.

By portraying the offensive as solely an Afghan army undertaking, the diplomats said, the official Soviet media appeared to be putting the Afghan military to a ″public test.″

″In reality, Soviet forces are and have been engaged in the battle for Khost for several weeks,″ the diplomats said. ″A key question is whether guerrillas deployed in the area will maintain their siege.″

Although the Soviets and Afghans are stronger militarily, the guerrillas have benefited from the use of U.S. Stinger missiles, bad weather in the region and control of the heights overlooking the Gardez-Khost road.

In general, they said, Soviet and Afghan air losses are reported down in the past six to eight months.

In another development, the sources, quoting Eastern bloc diplomats in Kabul, said the new Islamic Party, one of several parties formed by the government recently, has a membership of only 31, compared with the ruling Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which claims a membership of 180,000.

The diplomats also reported a resurgence of malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis in Afghanistan, as well as livestock diseases.

Western estimates say there are 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. They are fighting a protracted war with rebels who are trying to overthrow the Soviet-backed Afghan government. Soviet troops intervened in December 1979.