ABC Television correspondent Bill Stewart, 37, was shot and killed today by a Nicaraguan National Guard soldier while attempting to film war destruction in a Managua neighborhood.
Stewart's Nicaraguan interperter also was killed in the incident, filmed by eyewitnesses who described it as a deliberate shooting carried out after Stewart had been ordered to kneel.
[Dramatic films of the shooting, made by survivors among the ABC crew, were shown on U.S. television evening news programs.]
Tonight, President Anastasio Somoza offered his condolences and promised a "full investigation."
The slaying came a day after government radio and a newspaper owned by Somoza attacked foreign reporters covering the civil war here, accusing them of communist sympathies.
[In Washington, President Carter said, "The murder of . . . Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn." Secretary of State Cyrus Vance asked the U.S. Embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan government for a full report on the shootings.]
Max Kelly, a personal secretary to Somoza who questioned the ABC crew after Stewart's death, told them the shooting was the "action of an individual soldier," ABC sound technician Jim Cefalo said.
Before Somoza's statement, the Nicaraguan government radio said Stewart's death was a result of sniper shots by Sandinista rebel guerrillas.
John Bargeron, a U.S. vice consul in Nicaragua charged with facilitating shipment of Stewart's body to the United States, was heard telling the ABC crew that "this is a war of murder. It was a normal execution. Nicaraguans are killed like that everyday."
According to Cefalo, who witnessed the shooting, the incident began when the ABC team, traveling in a clearly marked press van, approached a National Guard patrol in the eastern Managua neighborhood of El Riguero.
Stewart and his interpreter, Juan Espinosa, got out of the van and walked toward a soldier with their hands raised, carrying a white flag and government-issued press credentials, Cefalo said.
As the soldier approached them, his rifle raised, Stewart went down on his knees with hands up, Cefalo told reporters in an emotional, hastily called news conference.
"He stepped back and motioned . . . It looked like he told [Stewart] to put his hands behind his back. Bill started to comply, and the guard stepped back, put the rifle to [Stewart's] head and shot once."
A quiet man whom colleagues described as a "good reporter who was extremely cautious," Stewart arrived here from his home in New York June 10. A veteran correspondent, married with no children, he covered the revolution in Iran and civil war in Lebanon.
Stewart's death pointed up the growing antogonism between the beleaguered Nicaraguan government and army and the foreign press corps covering the civil war.
The government has repeatedly accused the foreign press, including reporters from the United States, Europe and other Latin American countries, of distorting the situation here in its description of strong public support for the anti-Somoza insurrection led by Sandinista National Liberation Front guerrillas.
Tuesday, the government radio network began broadcasting charges that foreign reporters were part of an "international Communist conspiracy" to topple Somoza and install a Marxist government. An article in the Somoza-owned newspaper Novedades Tuesday accused the international press of "criminal silence" about what it called Sandinista Communists.
None of the correspondents who have been coming to Nicaraguan in the past two years has ever told the truth," the paper said, "either because they are paid by or are part of the vast net of Communist propaganda."
In a meeting with reporters this evening, Somoza said, "I ask you as president of Nicaragua and as supreme commander of the armed forces to accept my most deep condolences" for what he termed an "unforgivable and isolated incident."
"I ask you to understand that I really feel for the death of Bill Stewart," Somoza said. "I never wanted it to happen in Nicaragua."
Somoza said those held responsible would be punished under the "full weight of the law." He asked ABC to provide a military court with a copy of film cameraman Jack Clark shot of the execution.
Representatives of all three American television networks said their crews would leave in the morning on an evacuation plane provided by the U.S. Air Force.
Ironically, a number of correspondents who also covered an outbreak of civil war here in September have noted a more cooperative attitude on the part of National Guard soldiers. In September, reporters who attempted to talk with Guards on patrol or at checkpoints were often pushed and shoved or threatened at gunpoint and ordered to leave.
Since large numbers of reporters began arriving here after the Sandinistas renewed their offensive three weeks ago, Guard soldiers have been noticeably more cordial and helpful.
Cefalo said that the El Riguero neighborhood, which the guerrillas apparently already had left, was quiet and gunfire could be heard only in the far distance.
"In the first area we came to," Cefalo said, "the Guards were quite pleasant. They assisted us and at one point asked if we would take pictures of them showing how their morale was up. One of them had a guitar and they all sand and we shot it."
"They told us they had another outpost several blocks away," he said. As they approached this second group of soldiers at a deserted rebel barricade on a dirt road through the low income neighborhood, "Bill felt that rather than drive up to them and make them nervous, he would walk up with the interpreter and explain what we were doing."
As the two got out of the van, Cefalo said, a Guard motioned for them to go back. "The interpreter told them we meant no harm and walked ahead." Cefalo said he then looked up from his equipment "and saw Bill on his knees with his hands raised."
He said Espinosa, the interpreter, was taken behind a nearby building and shot. Although the rest of the crew had remained in the van several yards from the two on foot and could not hear conversations that went on, Cefalo said he believed the soldier accused the interpreter of being a guerrilla.
A number of soldiers standing behind the one who shot did not interfere, Cefalo said, and "there seemed no great concern about it." The other crew members were then instructed to come forward and show their credentials. They were told they could take Stewart's body in the van and they left without further comment from the soldiers.
Back at the hotel, Stewart's body lay in the back of the van, blood seeping out onto the pavement, while reporters gathered somberly. In the lobby, a large group of Nicaraguan government officials who have moved into the hotel for security stood with their families and bodyguards.
The two groups have tried to avoid each other over the past week as tension has grown in the city.
One Nicaraguan standing with the officials walked over to a group of correspondents and said angrily, "You people didn't make this much of a fuss when Pedro Pablo Espinoza was killed." Espinoza, a Novedades columnist, was reportedly executed by guerrillas last week inside a Managua barrio.
Stewart, who was based in New York, had been with ABC since 1976. While covering the Iranian revolution, he had an exclusive interview with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in which Khomeini defined his concept of the Islamic republic he is now forming.
Before joining ABC, Stewart worked as a reporter and commentator for television stations in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York. He was a graduate of Ohio State University and earned a master's degree at Columbia University. CAPTION: Picture 1, ABC correspondent Bill Stewart is ordered to the ground in Managua and then shot dead by a Nicaraguan National Guardsman. A Nicaraguan interpreter was killed at the same time. Photos were taken from a television screen. ABC News, via AP; Picture 2, BILL STEWART . . . slain ABC correspondent