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Date for withdrawal of Soviet troops set

A date has been set for the Red Army to start leaving Czechoslovakia, and an agreement on complete Soviet withdrawal from Hungary may come within a month, officials said Thursday. Soviet and Czechoslovak delegations meeting in Prague agreed that the withdrawal would begin Feb. 26, the day President Vaclav Havel starts a visit to Moscow.

Czechoslovakia had sought total withdrawal by the end of this year, but Gen. Anton Slimak, Czechoslovak chief of staff, said that would not happen. The Soviets want until the end of 1991. Sources in Prague said earlier this week that June 1991 was a likely compromise.

In Budapest, a senior Hungarian official was quoted as predicting agreement within a month on ending decades of Soviet military presence.

Soviet soldiers arrived in Hungary in 1956 to suppress the anti-Stalinist uprising and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring political liberalization.

With their first free elections in more than 40 years nearing, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are on the threshold of full democracy and see removal of Soviet forces as a symbolic affirmation of independence.

Havel hinted Tuesday that a personal letter he received from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev might help resolve the question of how soon all 73,500 Red Army soldiers would be out of Czechoslovakia.

Talks on the withdrawal began in Prague in January.

Czechoslovakia has insisted the Soviets withdraw regardless of whatever the results of East-West talks in Vienna on reducing conventional forces in Europe, but Hungary has not.

Czechoslovakia has asked that a substantial part of the Soviet forces be out before elections scheduled for June.