President Carter condemned Cuban President Fidel Castro in strong terms yesterday for failing to stop last month's cross-border attack on Zaire, but said U.S. military counteraction will be limited to the airlift of other nations' troops to the stricken area.

In a televised news conference, Carter vigorously rebutted Castro's statements that Cuba had nothing to do with the attack and, on the contrary, had attempted to head it off. Castro, on Monday, called the Carter administration's statements to the contrary "an absolute, total, complete lie."

Carter, in a prepared opening statement, took the occasion to give personal support to the embattled effort to lift the embargo against American arms shipments to Turkey. He said the issue is "the most immediate and urgent foreign policy decision" facing Congress and declared that the embargo has harmed U.S. national security interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

"Congress had good intentions," Carter said, when it imposed the embargo over the objections of the Ford administration after Turkey used U.S. supplied military equipment in its invasion of Cyprus. Carter conceded that the 1974 Turkish action violated U.S. law, but said the attempt to remedy it through the embargo drove wedges between Turkey, Greece and the United States, and perpetuated a deadlock on Cyprus. "We have tried it [and] it doesn't work," he said.

The president evidently came well prepared for questions on the running battle with Castro and congressional critics over his interpretation of Cuban and Soviet activity in Africa. He rattled off numbers, facts and arguments in rapid-fire order. In the process he made two misstatements that were corrected on the printed transcript by the White House press office.

Carter's most detailed reply was, in substance, an elaboration of his May 25 press conference charges that Cuba shared "a burden and a responsibility" for the invasion by Angola-based Lunda tribesmen, or Katangese, across the border into their home province of Shaba in Zaire. In statements which have been subsequently challenged, Carter said then that "the Cubans have played a key role in training and equipping the Kitangans who attacked" and that Cuba knew of the attack in advance and "obviously did nothing" to stop it.

"There is no doubt about the fact that Cuba has been involved in the training of the Katangan people who did invade. We have firm proof of this," said Carter yesterday. He did not specify when the training took place or cite any evidence, though other White House officials made public some details of the administrations's case.

In support of the statement that the Cubans were involved in the attack, Carter cited the presence of 20,000 Cuban troops in Angola with subsential control over transportation facilities and "deep" involvement in government ministries. He said 4,000 or more Cuba troops are in the area of Angola from which the attack was launched and that the Cubans have "heavy influence" with both the Katangan exile force there and the Angolan government.

Carter reacted sharply to Castro's statement, first made privately to a U.S. diplomat in Havana May 17, that he sought to head off the attack through contacts with the Angolan government. If Castro "genuinely wanted" to stop the invasion, Carter said, the Cuban leader could have interceded directly with the Katangans, interposed Cuban troops near the border, notified neighboring Zambia (through which the invaders moved in transit) or notified the Organization of African Unity or the world at large. "He did not do any of these things," Carter said.

Carter called on the Cuban and Angolan governments to pledge themselves to halt any further crossing of the Angolan border by forces heading to Zaire. He said the United States "would also relish the withdraw of Cuban troops" from both Angolan and Ethiopia.

Speaking of military response, Carter declared "we have never considered" supporting a pan-African strike force to be used wherever needed in Africa to counter communist action. Such a plan has been suggested by the French.

Carter said the only U.S. involvement has been the logistical support of other nations in sending troops to Shaba Province in the wake of the Katangese attack. "That is the limit of our involvement and I don't think we will go any further than that," he said.

Of 55 U.S. military airlift flights authorized by Carter, 42 have been completed, the Pentagon said yesterday. About 320 U.S. military personnel were reported on the ground in support of the operation in Africa and Europe.

Nine Republican members of the House of Representatives yesterday asked for congressional hearings on whether Carter's dispatch of the transport planes and ground personnel in connection with the Shaba invasion is subject to the 1973 Wars Powers Act. That law requires consultation with Congress and formal reports if U.S. armed forces are introduced into dangerous situations abroad.

The State Department on June 7 said the U.S. actions in Zaire are not covered by the War Powers Act because the air crews and support personnel are not equipped for combat and face "no significant danger" of hostile action.