Three women with checkered pasts are emerging as a focal point in the trial of 25 military men and one civilian accused of involvement in the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.

The women -- a prosecution witness known as "the crying lady" and two defense witnesses dubbed "the kissing ladies" -- have given conflicting testimonies on what they said they saw from windows of the China Airlines jetliner that brought Aquino home from three years of self-imposed exile in the United States.

Lawyers for the 26 defendants, who include armed forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver and other generals, have called the "kissing ladies" as surprise witnesses in the past two weeks.

Their appearance was part of a campaign to refute prosecution testimony that Aquino was shot by a soldier in a military conspiracy to get rid of the political archrival of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Rebecca Quijano, 32, called the "crying lady" because she sobbed uncontrollably in the airport terminal after Aquino's murder, testified in May that one of the opposition leader's military escorts shot Aquino in the back of the head while the escort was descending a stairway seconds after taking Aquino off the plane at the Manila International Airport.

In cross-examination, the defense hammered away at Quijano's credibility by drawing attention to several check-bouncing cases filed against her here as well as a conviction in Hong Kong for using stolen travelers checks.

Under questioning, she confirmed that she twice tried to commit suicide and was examined at a mental hospital during six months of detention in Hong Kong.

But Quijano stood by her earlier testimony, which corroborated that of three other prosecution witnesses who contradicted the government's claim that Aquino was shot on the airport tarmac by a lone gunman, Rolando Galman, who allegedly had been hired by communist rebels.

Two security guards testified that Aquino was shot on the stairway leading from a passenger tube, and an airport technician said he saw Galman surrounded by four soldiers when Aquino was shot.

The Quijano testimony also buttressed a report last October by a fact-finding board that investigated the assassination for nearly a year. The board concluded that a soldier killed Aquino on the stairs and that Galman, who was gunned down immediately afterward, had been set up to take the blame as part of the military conspiracy.

The board relied heavily on video and audio recordings taped by reporters inside the plane. The soundtracks revealed that the first shot, which evidently killed Aquino, rang out before he could have reached the tarmac.

But on July 8, the defense called a "surprise witness," Pelagia Hilario, 33, an "entertainer" who claimed to be one of Aquino's copassengers.

She told the three-judge panel hearing the case that she saw a man in blue (Galman was wearing an airport worker's uniform) point "a black thing that looked like a gun at Aquino's head," then heard a shot.

A week later, Lydia Morata, 31, another "entertainer" and friend of Hilario who said she was also on the plane, gave almost identical testimony.

The pair was dubbed the "kissing ladies" because they said they were the two women shown in news film embracing and kissing Aquino on the plane before landing.

However, the prosecution claimed that neither woman's name appeared on the passenger manifest and said that Hilario had a clearly visible mole on her face when she testified, but not in the news film.

The two women said they had been working in a nightclub in Kyodo, Japan. Morata said she had previously worked in a club in Manila's red-light district and had visited European and Asian countries with several different foreign "boyfriends."

Among the most surprised by the appearance of the surprise witnesses, Philippine newspapers reported, were Hilario's family in Davao City in the southern Philippines.

According to one newspaper, Hilario's relatives said she had told them shortly after the assassination that she had seen Aquino shot by a soldier as he was descending the stairway.

The paper said Hilario's father and sister suspected she had been forced to testify as she did and expressed concern for her safety.