The Soviet Union, expressing regret, said Friday that what it described as an old, unarmed Soviet cruise missile being used in target practice may have strayed over Finland and Norway.
Moscow's statement and apology, made by its ambassadors to Norway and Finland, came two days after Norway said a low-flying missile passed over Norwegian territory and disappeared in Finland on Dec. 28. No trace of the missile has been found.
The Soviet envoy to Oslo, the Norwegian capital, was quoted as saying that an unarmed target drone launched from a Soviet ship during exercises in the Barents Sea had malfunctioned and might have violated Finnish and Norwegian airspace.
A Norwegian bear hunter spotted the Soviet missile.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Svenn Stray said Soviet Ambassador Dmitri S. Polyanski expressed the Soviet government's regrets over the incident and told him the intruding missile was "an old Soviet cruise missile" used as a target drone.
Stray said that Norway, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, now considers the case closed.
"This apology on the Soviet ambassador's part improved relations between Norway and the Soviet Union," he said.
Expressing "deep satisfaction" with the Soviet response, Stray said it will "strengthen mutual confidence between Norway and the Soviet Union and between East and West." The minister also suggested that the apology could ease the atmosphere for next week's arms control talks between U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Ambassador Andrei A. Gromyko in Geneva.
In its announcement, the Finnish Foreign Ministry did not specify the type of missile discussed by Vladimir M. Sobolev, the Soviet ambassador to Finland.
"While holding firing exercises, a firing target, because of a technical fault, strayed from its given course," the ministry statement quoted Sobolev as reporting.
"He said it might have been possible that the target might at that point have violated Finnish airspace. Sobolev expressed his government's regrets because of what happened."
The ministry's chief political officer, Klaus Toernudd, said, "The type of the flying target is not important, because we have obtained a diplomatic solution to the case."
A Finnish government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sobolev used "flying target" several times in his report to Finnish Foreign Minister Paavo Vayrynen.
The source said the Finns considered the issue so touchy that the decision was made not to call the object a "drone" because that might imply it was a missile..
Neutral Finland has Northern Europe's longest land frontier with the Soviet Union. It maintains Western social, political and economic systems concurrently with strong trade and official friendship with Moscow.
The Finnish government source said the Foreign Ministry will issue a final statement on the case after receiving a full report from the border guard, which has been searching for traces of the missile in Finnish Lapland.
The search had been centered near Lake Inari, about 10 miles from the Soviet border. Finnish radio said before the Soviet apology was announced that the search area has been moved toward the Norwegian border.
The radio said the search was shifted largely because of a report from a Norwegian bear hunter, Herman Sotkajaervi, who lives between extreme northern Finland and the Barents Sea.
Sotkajaervi told the Helsinki newspaper Iltalehti that he saw the missile and reported it to authorities. The missile, he told the newspaper, "vanished toward Finland," and he then heard an explosion.
Before the Soviet ambassadors met with Foreign Ministry officials in Oslo and Helsinki, Norway lodged a protest in Moscow over the violation of its airspace, and the Finnish Foreign Ministry called in a representative of the Soviet Embassy to ask about the reported intrusion.