NEW DELHI, India -- Some 15,000 Soviet troops have thrust into the strategic Panjshir valley, destroying homes and crops in their biggest offensive against Moslem rebels in Afghanistan, Western diplomats said Tuesday.
The troops, rolling into the valley after a series of saturation bombing raids, have forced the Moslem guerrillas who had operated in the valley to redeploy on high ground, the diplomats said.
They said civilians and guerrillas in the Panjshir evacuated the area before the offensive, which involves about 15,000 men and represents the biggest campaign since the Soviets' December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Thousands of Moslem rebels are fighting to oust the 105,000 Soviet troops and overthrow the Soviet-installed government of President Babrak Karmal.
The Soviets, along with a small number of Afghan government troops, swept into the Panjshir April 21 with some 400 to 600 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles, the sources said.
Before the assault, the Soviets launched high-altitude saturation bombing raids, using the tactic for the first time in Afghanistan instead of the usual bombing and strafing runs by helicopters and MiG warplanes, they said.
The sources said the attacking forces have reached the half-way mark in the 70-mile-long valley, but apparently have not killed or captured the celebrated commmander of the Panjshir Valley guerrillas, Ahmad Shah Masood.
Masood's men had held the valley since the 1979 invasion, using it as a staging area for attacks on vital supply lines between the Soviet Union and Kabul, the Afghan capital.
In the current offensive, their seventh attempt to take the valley, 'Soviet forces systematically destroyed all habitations, crops and livestock as they moved into the Panjshir,' said one diplomat.
The destruction appeared to be designed to ensure the guerrillas, even if they return to the area, would be denied support from civilians.
Rebel radio broadcasts said the force involved in the Panjshir Valley offensive lost 1,600 men, 13 helicopters, 2 MiGs, 80 tanks and more than 35 vehicles. Diplomatic sources said they could not confirm the claims.
One diplomatic source said, 'The type of offensive doesn't lend itself to Afghan casualties' because both rebels and civilians had withdrawn from the valley before the assault.
On the eve of the Soviet attack, guerrillas destroyed the only Soviet outpost inside the valley, at Anawa, the sources said.
'The majority of the 300 Soviet troops in the garrison were captured and the rest retreated,' one diplomat said.