MANILA, JAN. 4 (MONDAY) -- A surprise witness testified today that he saw a soldier shoot President Corazon Aquino's husband as he returned from exile in the United States in August 1983.

It was the first time in the current trial that a witness had testified to having seen the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., which touched off a wave of indignation that led to the ouster of president Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986.

About 40 people, mostly from the military, are on trial in the killing. A Marcos-era court acquitted 26 defendants in 1985.

But after Corazon Aquino was swept to power in a military-civilian uprising against Marcos, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, which began last May.

The witness, Jesse Barcelona, said he was driving a towing tractor between bays 8 and 9 at Manila airport on Aug. 21, 1983, when he saw Aquino descending from the China Air Lines jet with three military escorts. "I saw the soldier at the back of the man in white point the gun at the nape," Barcelona said. "He fired the gun and he {Aquino} fell forward."

Barcelona, a 30-year-old Philippine Airlines employe, was brought to the courtroom by seven security guards. He did not point out the assailant.

Before the session, prosecutor Raul Gonzalez told reporters Barcelona had not identified the soldier.

Benigno Aquino, a leading opposition leader, was taken from the plane under military escort shortly after he arrived from self-imposed exile in the United States.

Previously, the prosecution had been unable to find a witness who saw the actual shooting.

The defense contends Benigno Aquino was shot by Rolando Galman, who was gunned down moments later. Marcos said Galman, a petty criminal with links to the military, was a communist.

After the 1985 trial, the court cleared all defendants and rejected testimony by some witnesses and evidence on audio and video tapes from foreign journalists that pointed to a soldier as Aquino's assassin.

The court said testimony by businesswoman Rebecca Quijano that she saw a soldier shoot Aquino was "dubious," and rejected the tapes either as unreliable or possibly "tampered with."

During a brief recess, Gonzalez showed reporters a letter threatening his life if he did not stop pursuing new evidence in the case.