MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union marked the start of its pullout from Afghanistan Sunday with a message of congratulations to its retreating army and poignant newspaper stories about families awaiting the return of their sons.
As the withdrawal began, senior Pakistani diplomat Zain Noorani arrived in Moscow for talks related to the Geneva agreement detailing the logistics of the withdrawal. One diplomat termed Noorani's visit 'routine'.
Even with reports that the U.S.-backed Moslem rebels have been steadily gaining ground as Soviet and Afghan forces retreat, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda maintained in an editorial that Afghan leader Najibullah has a good chance of surviving and continuing to govern after the Soviet pullout is complete next February.
But the newspaper also mentioned that 'mistakes' had been made by the Afghan government that contributed to the crisis.
'No matter how serious the mistakes committed during the revolutionary process and no matter how difficult it is to overcome these problems, the state and the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, being the initiator and driving force in the national reconciliation, have good chances of furthering consolidating its influence among the various strata of the population,' Pravda said.
Under the agreement signed in Geneva April 14, the Kremlin has promised to pull out its estimated 115,000 troops over a nine-month period with half withdrawing in the intitial three months.
The United States in turn has promised to keep its military aid to the Moslem rebels in line with continued Soviet assistance to Kabul.
Since the decision to withdraw was made last January, the Soviet media have acknowledged it was a mistake to try and force communism on a 'politically immature' country like Afghanistan.
On their front pages Sunday, Pravda and other national newspapers printed a message from the ruling Politburo praising Soviet troops for fulfilling their 'fair and nobel' mission in Afghanistan.
'Days of severe trials lie behind you,' said the message from the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
'Your profound faith in the noble cause of assistance to the friendly people braced you in those trials,' it said. 'You have fulfilled the order of your homeland.'
'Your energies are needed today for perestroika (reorganization), for the cause of renovating socialism and for the protection of this achievements,' it told the soldiers.
Although the Central Committee statement said the names of Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan 'will be forever remembered by the people,' casualty figures have never been disclosed.
Along with the message was a joint Soviet-Afghan statement that thanked the Soviet Union for its support during the conflict and blamed the war on the outside interference of Pakistan and the United States.
'The end of this interference remains the key to a peaceful settlement,' it said.
But while Soviet newspapers were publishing the formal withdrawal announcement on their front pages, inside were stories about anxious families eager for the return of their sons, complaints about the problems of rehabilitation and lack of appreciation veterans might find on their return home.
'Afghan veterans' mothers are a lot like each other. The mothers' hearts ache the same way,' said one story headlined 'We await your homecoming, our dear ones' in the Moskovskaya Pravda newspaper.
The story in the Moscow City Communist Party newspaper explained how the Bogolkyubova family spend months following the war in the newspaper and on radio while their son served in Afghanistan.
'Today I cannot read or hear anything other than reports of Afghanistan. Now more information is getting through. Surprisingly even the most severe and frightful truth is easier that the images which my imagination drew up,' Natalia Bogolyubova said.
'I think the mothers await this important political event most of all,' wrote Afghan veteran and bravery medal winner Adylbek Atadjanov, who lost both legs in combat.
But in his article in Komsomolskaya Pravda he also complained bitterly that he has been waiting for aritifical legs for more than a year and officials have failed to help him.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to save a communist regime that was crumbling before Moslem guerrillas. But after eight years of fighting, Soviet and Afghan government control is limited to a few urban centers and vulnerable supply routes.
The withdrawal also clears the way for Moscow to improve its relations with Moslem countries that often voiced bitter resentment over the Soviet suppression of religion in Afghanistan during the war with Moslem guerrillas.