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Soviets differ with themselves on airline downing

A rare spurt of public comment from Soviet military figures has highlighted contradictions in Moscow's account of the Korean Air Lines tragedy. The statements have also underscored differences between Moscow's version of events and that implied by US-released details of conversations between Soviet fighter pilots.

Yet the most senior of the military commentators, the Soviet chief of staff, accepted the pilot transcipts as genuine.

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All this has focused attention on what diplomats, and even some Soviet sources, view as a public mishandling of the affair by Moscow.

Soviet sources echo Kremlin charges the United States is to blame for the loss of the Boeing 747. Moscow says the US was using the plane for spying. ''I see no other credible explanation for the strange behavior of the plane,'' one source said, ''except a spy mission.''

But the sources make clear they feel Moscow should have admitted more quickly to having downed the plane. Some also suggest Moscow should have stressed profound regret for the civilian lives lost in the disaster.

The Soviet propoganda apparatus - if pleased with what seems domestic backing for its line - has seemed on the defensive internationally. Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov held an unprecedented news conference Friday. On Saturday, Soviet TV aired interviews with three fighter pilots, including the one said to have fired the missile that downed the plane. On Sunday, the commander of fighter-aviation within the anti-air defense force, Nikolai Moskvitelev, also spoke on TV.

A shared theme was that Washington has yet to explain how the plane could have strayed so far off course for so long, and why the US and Japan did not alert Moscow to the problem. This, along with the airliner's alleged failure to respond to warnings by Soviet jets, was termed proof the jumbo was spying.

But on details, the Soviet accounts differed:

* Marshal Ogarkov, and a government statement on the incident published in Moscow newspapers two days before his news conference, said the KAL jet took evasive action before being shot down. He added this included a change in altitude. But the pilot who fired the missiles said: ''It kept flying (after our warnings) on the same course and altitude. And I got a command, a precise and definite command'' to fire.

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* Marshal Ogarkov said the Boeing had tried, shortly before being shot down, to head for the sensitive Soviet port of Vladivostok.

General Moskvitelev's version was slightly different, saying the plane was heading toward the Sea of Japan.

* Marshal Ogarkov and General Moskvitelev both said Soviet fighter pilots had tried to contact the 747 by radio.

The pilots interviewed on TV, detailing other actions said to have been taken to alert the plane, made no mention of radio contact.

* Marshal Ogarkov said visibility had been poor during the interception. The pilots made no mention of this.

A related mystery concerns references, in pilot conversations released by the US and Japan, to the ''target's'' blinking strobe light. Although the Soviets have consistently said the plane was dark, one pilot is recorded as saying: ''The target's light is blinking.''

Marshal Ogarkov, asked to comment, did not dispute the authenticity of the transcripts. Nor did two senior civilian officials beside him at his news conference when other references were made to the pilot conversations. The military chief said, instead, that the reference was to lights on another of the Soviet chase planes, not on the jumbo.

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