U.S. forensic experts today released a preliminary report on the skeleton they concluded "within a reasonable scientific certainty" was Josef Mengele's and said they were going home convinced that the Nazi war criminal is dead.

A statement signed by representatives of the U.S. Marshals Service of the Justice Department and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said remains exhumed two weeks ago from the cemetery at Embu were "definitely not those of Wolfgang Gerhard," the name on the death certificate.

"This skeleton is that of Josef Mengele within a reasonable scientific certainty," said the statement, which will be followed by a detailed report from Brazilian officials in a week's time to conclude the Mengele mystery.

New York forensic odontologist Dr. Lowell J. Levine said at a joint press conference that the conclusion represented "a very, very, very high degree of probability. Scientists never say anything 100 percent.

"The odds are astronomical that another person on this earth could have the same characteristics" as those of the skeleton, where a number of fractures dating from World War II were found, he said.

U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III announced the results of the investigation in Washington and said: "It is my sincere hope that this will be the final chapter in a tragic and horrible part of world history." He said the department's Office of Special Investigations "will continue its investigation as to whether or not Josef Mengele was ever in United States custody or had any relationship with U.S. officials."

The Asociated Press reported that Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal told a San Francisco radio station, "We have no choice but to accept the findings of the experts." He gave the interview by telephone from his headquarters in Vienna.

[Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal center, and a number of survivors of the death camp where the Nazi doctor worked said in Los Angeles that they were disappointed that Mengele died without having to explain his crimes, Washington Post correspondent Jay Mathews reported.]

Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, a Wilmington, Del., medical examiner also representing the U.S. government, said the phrase "reasonable certainty" was that used in U.S. court cases.

"It is sufficiently positive to prosecute and convict for homicide cases, so you'll know the degree of scientific certainty required."

Pathologist Dr. Leslie Lukash, one of the four-member Wiesenthal center team, said experts had been hampered by the absence of recent comparative data such as X-rays. The experts said almost all available comparative data had come from Mengele's 1938 SS file in the Berlin document center. The family had supplied nothing.

"Mengele left nothing open. We had to start from zero, but if you were to give degrees of probability, you'd say this was very strong evidence," said Lukash. He said both dental and anthropological tests had been highly consistent.

Although the experts said their identification resulted from an accumulation of proof, all pointed to a new West German photographic superimposition technique as the most conclusive evidence.

Ellis R. Kerley, a professor at the University of Maryland and part of the U.S. government team, said the technique imposed available pictures of Mengele onto skull images. "The most important revelation was the photo-imposition," he said, adding that they had found that a small facial blemish exactly corresponded to a bony defect on the skull's cheekbone, he said.

"It was most convincing. On the screen, you could watch Mengele's photograph being replaced by the skull -- all the contours were in complete agreement and everything fitted," said Kerley.

"The court that will judge what we've done here will be the entire scientific community," said Kerley, confirming that he and his colleagues were staking their reputations on the findings.

Kerley said the anthropological checks for age, race and stature had been more accurate and decisive than usual in such cases. Levine said the conclusion of the four scientific teams had been unanimous.

Yesterday the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a telex to its representatives here requesting a delay in announcement of the findings, in order to put pressure on the Mengele family in Germany to release more information.

But, although University of Oklahoma pathologist Clyde Snow transmitted the request to Police Chief Romeu Tuma, he said he would have reached the same conclusion and, "I had no way of delaying things."

Scientists also played down the significance of information from the Wiesenthal center, citing testimony of Auschwitz victims that Mengele did not have a limp. They said the word of untrained witnesses was inconclusive.

However, the Israeli government's special police investigator Menachem Russek remained cautious and would not officially confirm that the 40-year hunt for Mengele was finally over.

"You have to accept it as it is. We've been patient for 40 years; let's wait another week to see the final report," he said. He said his special unit would not be disbanded as long as other Nazi war criminals were living.

Police chief Tuma, who conducted a tumultuous press conference at which an album of Mengele photographs, various skulls and other evidence were shown, said Mengele's remains could be returned to West Germany.

"When the experts' inquiry has been finished, they'll be returned to the cemetery if the family so wishes, or sent to any other destination abroad," said Tuma.