The Soviet Union's major dissident figure, physicist Andrei Sakharov, said yesterday that he and his wife have been threatened by a self-described terrorist organisation that has mailed and telephoned warnings to them in recent weeks.

The threats from the self-styled "All-Union Interideological Union" complain that the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his wife have only their own interests at heart in their dissident activities and have broken faith "with the masses."

Sakharov said that a letter and telephone threats accuse them of using money earmarked for aid to sSoviet political prisoners for their own personal needs. He said his wife, Elena Bonner, received a telephone threat from a man who described himself as chairman of the group and who went on to say, "If you don't stop we will take measures, including terrorist acts."

The money they are accused of misusing is called "The Russian Social Fund", and derives income from royalties exiled novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn earned from his "Gulag Archipelago."

The fund's administrator, Alexander Ginzburg, was sentenced in July to eight years' forced labour on charges of anti-Soviet agitation. His wife, Irina, now runs the fund. Sakharov said Mrs. Ginzburg has received recent threats to kill her sons, aged 6 and 3.

He said he received a letter about six weeks ago entitled "Memo 57 No. 2" accusing the Sakharovs of pursuing private goals rather than defending human rights. It called on him to confess his selfish interests, he said, and turn over administration of the social funds to the "All-Union Interideological Union.

"We are not convinced the KGB (state secret police) are behind this," Sakharov said. "We think it could be individual elements who think themselves above the law and political considerations. It worries me. I think it is a serious matter. We don't know who it comes from the KGB or quasi-dissidents or criminals."

Sakharov pointed out that he and his wife have had nothing to do with the Russian Social Fund. "We worry not only about ourselves, but about those people who administer the fund and who are probably known to those who wrote the memo and made the calls," he said.

Sakharov's mail is routinely controlled by the KGB and he has documented instances in the past when letters sent to him through the Soviet postal system have been intercepted and have never arrived.

Some dissidents and Jews have recounted repeated examples of anonymous threats and intimidating phone calls, and it is commonly thought that these incidents are the work of the secret police.