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The fight for Salang Pass

By JONATHAN S. LANDAY

SALANG PASS, Afghanistan -- The story of the government's struggle to hold open the crucial supply route from the Soviet Union to its bastion of Kabul can be seen for mile after mile along the strategic Salang Pass.

Hundreds of trucks, cars, armored personnel carriers and tanks, their guts torn apart by fires and explosions, litter every curve and stretch of the 70-mile-long pass as it carries the Salang highway beneath the snow-crowned escarpments of the towering Kush mountains.

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Like a scrap metal dealer's dream, the rusting and flame-blackened hulks sit amid a detritus of ammunition boxes, piles of shell casings, rusted motors and gear boxes, ruined cannons, tank treads and fuel tanks sheared from their mountings.

Only government troops stir in the devastated remains of 180 mud brick villages sitting like crumbled dun-colored layer cakes on the mountain slopes. Their inhabitants are all long gone, having fled a massive Soviet bombing blitz that soldiers said killed 500 people just before the Kremlin completed on Feb. 15 its military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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A group of foreign reporters toured the area Wednesday for the first time since the Soviet pullout. They were cheerfully greeted by combat-hardened regime troops who wrested control of the pass 28 days earlier from the forces of Ahmad Shah Masoud, considered the most brilliant commander of U.S.-armed Moslem rebels fighting to topple pro-Moscow President Najibullah.

The defiles and mountaintops are perfect guerrilla country, making the section of the Salang highway that snakes through the pass one of the most vulnerable to rebel attacks on convoy carrying badly need food, fuel and military supplies to Kabul from Haraiton, on the Soviet-Afghan border.

As long as the government holds the pass, convoys can move unhindered down from the Salang tunnel to the plains town of Jabal Saraj, 70 miles north of Kabul.

From there, the Salang highway knifes across flat lands, where regime forces are still struggling to keep it open against guerrillas. The guerrillas are trying to destabilize President Najibullah by cutting off supplies to Kabul and enraging its 2 million residents who depend on his government's support.

Proof that the regime was still having problems south of Jabal Saraj were hundreds of laden cargo trucks and fuel tankers seen waiting in the nearby town of Charikar to make the treacherous run to the capital.

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Some 450 trucks managed to enter Kabul Wednesday morning from Charikar in the first major convoy to reach the city in more than two weeks. But reporters returning by helicopter from the Salang Pass in the afternoon spotted large columns of smoke rising from the highway outside Charikar, indicating that guerrillas were still disrupting traffic.

Brig. Gen. Mohammad Shafir, whose 2nd Infantry division guards the roadway in the Salang Pass, said it took 12 days of heavy fighting to secure the pass from Masoud's men, members of the Pakistan-based Jamiat Islamic guerrilla group.

'We cleared out all of the areas and we took all of their weapons,' he said at the former Soviet-held Haijan outpost near the Salang tunnel. 'Now, none of the extremists are here. Their postions were destroyed.'

He said he lost seven men in the battle, while the guerrillas suffered 250 dead.

In a show of elan, about 20 of his men clapped and danced on the outpost roof to traditional 'ghazzal' songs sung by two well-dressed women backed by a band brought from Kabul twice monthly to entertain troops.

'Since last month, there have been no attacks and no fighting here,' Shafir claimed above the noise of the celebration.

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Despite the lax atmosphere of the post and the easy confidence of Shafir and his soldiers, the situation in the pass still appeared critical, with massive numbers of troops, artillery, tanks and armored cars deployed on every stretch of the road.

Heavily armed soldiers hunkered down in blockhouses of sun-hardened mud, concrete, ammunition boxes, old shell casings and boulders encased in steel frames, their machine guns, cannons and rocket launchers pointed into the silence of the surrounding slopes and ridgelines.

Tanks and other armored vehicles were wedged into earthen banks or between burned out trucks, their crews ready to fire at the slightest sign of the enemy.

Still, Shafir hesitated not a second in expressing his belief that his force could hold their portion of the vital roadway, contending the rebels were too divided by deep rivalries to mount a serious counterattack.

'The main problem they have is disunity,' he said with bravado. 'Instead of fighting us, they are now busy fighting each other.

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