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SNOW MAY HAVE MISLED AVIATORS WHO FLEW COPTER INTO N. KOREA

SHARE SNOW MAY HAVE MISLED AVIATORS WHO FLEW COPTER INTO N. KOREA

Two American aviators whose helicopter went down after straying over North Korea were disoriented and gave an incorrect report of their location in their last radio contact, a U.S. spokesman said Monday.

One pilot died when the helicopter was shot down or made an emergency landing Saturday in the communist country. The other was reported unhurt and in North Korean custody.In their final contact at 10:43 a.m. Saturday, the pilots gave their position at a location in South Korea. In fact, they were somewhere else, said military spokesman Jim Coles. He could not say whether they were actually in South Korea or North Korea at the time.

There had been a heavy snowstorm the night before, and the 3 feet of snow on the ground may have obscured terrain landmarks and the orange navigational placards pilots use as markers, Coles said.

Quoting South Korean military officials, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the two Americans reported in their last radio contact that they were six miles south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas and getting ready to turn around. Actually, they were three miles north of the zone, in North Korean territory, Yonhap said.

In Washington Monday, President Clinton vowed to press for an "early resolution" in winning the release of the surviving pilot, although said he had no details to offer at this time.

Clinton also said he had called the families of the two aviators earlier Monday, offering condolences to the family of the one who was killed.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, voiced hope that the incident does not need to unsettle fragile diplomatic relations with the communist state.

North Korean officials did not discuss the incident at a routine briefing Monday, then canceled a higher-level meeting with American officials.

"The KPA (Korean Peoples Army) called at the last minute to say their leaders were busy working on their investigation," Coles said. American officials will try again Tuesday to meet with North Korean authorities, he said.

The United States said the U.S. Army OH-58C helicopter was unarmed and on a routine training mission.

Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon of Clarksville, Tenn., was killed. The White House said Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall of Brooksville, Fla., was "alive and reportedly uninjured."

South Korean troops guarding the area have orders to fire warning shots if an aircraft comes close to the DMZ. But Yonhap reported that the unit on duty had turned on a generator because of electrical work, drowning out the sound of the approaching helicopter.

Yonhap, quoting an unidentified source, said North Korean troops opened fire when the helicopter tried to take off after landing on the northern side of the border. U.S. officials said they could not comment on what exactly happened on the North Korean side.

South Korean military sources said ground troops saw the helicopter fly into North Korean territory but reported no signs of an attack or pursuit, the newspaper Dong A Ilbo reported.

The incident threatened U.S.-North Korea ties less than two months after a breakthrough over Pyongyang's nuclear program warmed the two countries' icy relationship. But the accord also raised hopes for a quick resolution.