A Southeast Washington woman was thrown from the balcony of a third-story apartment yesterday during a dispute with her common-law husband, who then held police at bay for about four hours, refusing to release the couple's four children, D.C. police said.

The man later released the children--three girls and a boy, ranging in age from 9 months to 5 years--unharmed and surrendered.

Florence Gafford, 26, of 2333 16th St. SE, was listed in critical condition last night at Greater Southeast Community Hospital with undetermined injuries, according to hospital officials.

Zachary Bruce Johnson, 26, of the same address, was charged with assault with intent to kill, police said.

The incident began at about 3:30 p.m. when police were called to the family's apartment to end a domestic dispute. After the officers had talked with the couple and returned to their police car about 30 minutes later, two passersby notified them that a man had just thrown a woman off a balcony of the building.

The standoff with police began when the man told them he had a gun and refused to release the children. Police negotiating by telephone with the man persuaded him to free the children about 7:30 p.m., and he surrendered shortly after that.