The United States has sent a letter to North Korea expressing regret for violating its airspace eight days ago when a U.S. Army helicopter mistakenly crossed into the communist nation's territory and was shot down, U.S officials here and in Washington said Saturday.

Pentagon officials were optimistic that the letter would ease the way for North Korea to release the helicopter's surviving pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall. Pyong-yang had demanded an apology, and U.S. officials said the letter would help the nation save face and make it politically easier to release the soldier."We're sitting on our hands. We're hopeful he'll be back during daylight time tomorrow," a Pentagon official said Saturday. But Hall remained in the hands of the North Korean People's Army as Christmas morning arrived in Asia.

The letter uses the word "regret," the official said. It "attributed the flight (over North Korean territory) to navigation error. It does convey assurances the U.N. command is taking steps to prevent a recurrence," the official said.

U.S. troops in South Korea are officially under the command of the United Nations, as they have been since the start of the Korean War more than 40 years ago.

The letter was written by Gen. Gary E. Luck, supreme commander of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, and was reviewed by Defense Secretary William Perry and other senior Clinton administration officials, a senior Pentagon source said.

President Clinton, meanwhile, said Saturday in his weekly radio address that he was "hopeful" that Hall "will soon be back with his family."

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North Korea has said that Hall is in good condition, but there has been no outside contact with him. He and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon, were shot down when their unarmed OH-58 helicopter, on a rainy flight, strayed over North Korean territory a week ago Saturday.

Hilemon died in the crash. After several days of negotiations by Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who happened to be visiting Pyongang, Hilemon's body was turned over to U.S. soldiers Thursday in a brief ceremony at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

While the president expressed hope that Hall, 28, would be returned quickly, and other aides said they had what one said was "a pretty good idea" of what North Korea wanted, one senior Pentagon official indicated that the U.S. government was uncertain whether the North Korean military and other government officials there were acting in concert.

"What we don't know is if everybody in North Korea wants the same thing, and if a letter for one constituency serves another constituency," said the Pentagon official, insisting on anonymity.

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