MOSCOW, MAY 25 -- The Izvestia reporters found Gennady Osipovich in a small town in southern Russia, a retired air force officer cultivating his strawberries and tormented by the thought that he was responsible for the killing of 269 innocent people.

Others with direct knowledge of the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 turned up in equally unlikely places. Some ran into Andrei Illesh, Izvestia's national news editor, on hiking expeditions. Others called from Moscow pay phones, frightened that they might be overheard but eager to recount their part in an incident that sparked one of the most serious superpower confrontations of the Cold War era.

It has taken almost eight years -- and a furious row within Izvestia, the semiofficial organ of the Soviet legislature -- for the story to be told. Soviet generals who sanctioned the downing of the Korean Boeing 747 are sputtering with indignation. But thanks to a remarkable piece of investigative journalism made possible by the relaxation of official controls over the Soviet news media, the long-standing Kremlin version of the incident now lies in tatters.

"There have been many books written about KAL 007 in the West, but the only living eyewitnesses to this tragedy are in the Soviet Union," said Illesh, who began investigating the KAL affair while on vacation trips to the Soviet Far East. "The world is interested in the facts of what happened. But for me, what is most important is that ordinary Soviet citizens are opening their lips after so many years of silence. By talking, we become normal people."

When KAL 007 disappeared over the Soviet island of Sakhalin before dawn on Sept. 1, 1983, after straying 300 miles from its international flight path, the Kremlin's initial reaction was to feign ignorance. After an international outcry, Moscow conceded that the "intruder" had been shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor jet after ignoring numerous attempts to force it to land. The Soviet Defense Ministry still insists that the Korean plane, en route to Seoul from Anchorage, was on a spy mission for the United States.

The Izvestia investigation found that, despite Kremlin claims to the contrary, no attempt was made to communicate with KAL 007 on an emergency frequency. Osipovich, the pilot of the Soviet interceptor, now denies official assertions that he fired tracer rounds to warn the jumbo jet and that it was flying without its navigation lights. Several Soviet analysts interviewed by Izvestia have said KAL 007 probably was shot down over international waters.

Penetrating the wall of official secrecy surrounding the KAL affair, Illesh discovered that the Soviets managed to locate the wreckage of the plane 570 feet deep in the Sea of Japan.

The "black box" flight recorders, which could reveal why the plane strayed from its course, were recovered and sent to Moscow for examination. The Kremlin's failure to make propaganda use of the black boxes, or even acknowledge that they are in Soviet hands, suggests that no evidence was found to prove the espionage allegations.

It is still unknown how the Boeing 747 came to be so far off course after making a refueling stop in Anchorage. There is no shortage of theories. The generally accepted view of Western aviation specialists is that the plane's computerized navigation system either malfunctioned despite redundant safeguards or was misprogrammed by the crew; either explanation also assumes a major breakdown in pilot attentiveness, the specialists say.

To publish his account of what happened to KAL 007, Illesh had to overcome high-level opposition within his own newspaper. Izvestia editor-in-chief Nikolai Yefimov, who is embroiled in a running battle with his staff over the limits of press freedom, feared that publication of such sensitive material could damage the country's international "prestige." Responsibility was eventually assumed by the deputy editor, Igor Golembiovsky.

"It's impossible to work with this man," said Illesh, referring to Yefimov. "Often it is difficult to publish, not because of opposition from the army or KGB {secret police}, but because of our own editor. He is a pathological coward."

Cat-and-Mouse Game

Reconstructing the Korean Airlines tragedy from the more relaxed vantage point of the Gorbachev era is like traveling back into a vanished world. In the summer of 1983, relations between Moscow and Washington had sunk to their lowest point in many years. President Reagan had denounced the rival superpower as an "evil empire." Embroiled in a losing war in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was behaving like a wounded bear, ready to strike at any moment to defend its lair.

While the leaders were exchanging insults, a dangerous cat-and-mouse game was taking place in the skies above the Soviet Far East. U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were constantly probing the border, testing Soviet air defenses.

After a 15-minute overflight of Zelenyi island by a U.S. plane in April 1983, Soviet pilots were taken to task for their laxity by a commission sent from Moscow. A new law adopted by the national legislature described Soviet borders as "sacred" and authorized local commanders to destroy any intruders.

"The stress was telling on me," recalled Lt. Col. Osipovich, the deputy commander of an air force regiment based at the secret military airfield of Sokol on Sakhalin island, in his interview with Izvestia. "There was a constant war of nerves. During 10 years of service in the Far East, I made more than 1,000 intercepts."

When Soviet radar detected an unidentified foreign plane above the Kamchatka peninsula in the early morning hours of Sept. 1, air defenses throughout the region went on alert. MiG-25 jets were sent up to catch the intruder but were obliged to abandon the chase because of lack of fuel. In order to prevent defections, Soviet pilots were never given enough fuel to reach a foreign airfield.

At the Sokol base on Sakhalin, meanwhile, Osipovich was the most experienced pilot present. At 4:30 a.m. local time, he was instructed to go to Readiness 1 and climbed into the cockpit of his Su-15 interceptor.

His first thought was that a special training exercise was underway. It was "much too early" for the Americans to be raising "a commotion" with their RC-135 electronic surveillance planes, he recalled later. That usually happened after 11 a.m.

'Destroy the Target'

At 6 a.m., the order came to take off; an aircraft was "violating flight regime." After roughly 10 minutes' flight, he caught sight of the intruder through a thin layer of clouds. It looked like a flying dot, two or three centimeters across. The plane's flashing navigation lights were clearly visible against the predawn sky.

The entire drama above Sakhalin was to last less than 18 minutes, the time it takes for a plane flying 600 mph to cross this starkly beautiful Pacific island from east to west. During that time, Osipovich had to catch up with the intruder and maneuver himself into a position so he could open fire. His ground controller, Lt. Vladimir Borisov, was constantly yelling instructions in his ear, countermanding an initial order to destroy the intruder with directions to force it to land.

"Give him some warning bursts," shouted Borisov. But the Su-15 was not equipped with incendiary rounds, which would be more visible. So Osipovich fired 243 rounds of armor-piercing bullets past the airliner. According to Osipovich, the Korean plane responded by dropping its speed. Osipovich banked sharply, turning back toward the intruder from above. The two planes were leaving Soviet airspace, west of the settlement of Nevelsk, when the final order was relayed by Borisov: "Destroy the target."

Osipovich responded by dropping his nose sharply and locking onto the jumbo jet from above. From a distance of three miles, he fired two heat-seeking infrared missiles slung under the wings of his jet. By now, he could see the intruder more clearly. It was like no plane he had ever seen before; Soviet fighter pilots do not study the shapes of foreign civilian aircraft.

"The first missile hit near the tail. There was a burst of yellow flame. The second took off half the left wing. The lights and flashers went out immediately," Osipovich told Izvestia.

A Soviet military report cited by Izvestia this week spoke of the plane crashing into the water at a 70- to 80-degree angle and exploding on impact. If that was the case, the shootdown must have occurred in international airspace between Sakhalin and the Soviet island of Moneron.

According to Izvestia, the plane's wreckage was discovered 11 miles east of Moneron, on the edge of Soviet territorial waters. Independent Soviet experts believe that the plane took between 35 seconds and 2 minutes to fall some 30,000 feet.

Until now, Kremlin officials have claimed that the Korean Boeing went into a slow descent, hitting the water some 10 minutes after being fired upon. Illesh said this version was concocted to make it appear that the plane was shot down in Soviet airspace and then glided an extra 40 to 50 miles across international waters.

The Official Version

When Osipovich returned to the Sokol base, he was greeted like a hero. It seemed as if the entire regiment wanted to shake his hand and congratulate him on destroying the intruder.

The strange shape of the plane -- it looked a little like a Soviet Tu-16 bomber -- made Osipovich wonder if he had shot down "one of ours" by mistake. But his doubts were put to rest by his commanding officer, a colonel named Kornukhov, who assured him: "No, it was a foreigner, so make a hole in your shoulder boards for a new star."

Amid the general euphoria, Osipovich was untroubled by the thought that the "target" may have been a passenger plane. "I had no idea that it was a passenger aircraft flying ahead of me. I saw in front of me an intruder over the border, and it had to be destroyed.

"During my time in the service, I went up many times to make an intercept. I used to dream about the situation. I knew that if an intruder did appear, I would not miss him."

Then, quite unexpectedly, everything changed. A government commission arrived from Moscow. A team of carefully selected Soviet journalists flew to Sokol to interview Osipovich -- and bring his story into line with the official version. The propaganda war between the two superpowers was heating up, and the Kremlin was determined to respond to American accusations that it deliberately had shot down a passenger airliner.

When Soviet television interviewed Osipovich several days later, he was handed a carefully prepared script. To make the performance seem a little less wooden, he was given a bottle of vodka to drink. "I started to speak -- about the lesson for the world, about the atom bomb. I could not speak so well now," the pilot recalled.

A journalist for the Soviet army newspaper Red Star, who took part in the coaching of Osipovich, recalled that the subject seemed a nervous wreck. His palms were cold, and he had a distracted, faraway look in his eyes. Osipovich complained that he was kept a virtual prisoner and was "not even allowed to go to the bathroom alone."

Undersea Search

In the Sea of Japan, meanwhile, an international hunt was on for the black boxes, widely believed to contain the secrets of the last moments of KAL 007. A small armada of Soviet, American and Japanese ships appeared off Moneron island.

To conceal a vast underwater operation around a floating drilling rig, the Mikhail Mirchink, the Soviets deployed some 20 fishing vessels. The Americans were thrown off the track by a false black box planted in a deep part of the sea.

Since the Soviet navy did not have the necessary deep-water search equipment, civilian divers were drafted from all over the Soviet Union.

After combing the seabed in a diving bell known as an "octopus," they eventually found the aircraft. It was broken up into small pieces no more than six feet long. There were scraps of clothing, women's purses, documents. A photograph taken by a diver and made available to The Washington Post shows a life belt clearly marked with the Korean Airlines insignia.

Mysteriously, no bodies were found, a detail that initially seemed to confirm the Soviet propaganda line that the whole affair was an elaborate CIA provocation. In a slight variation on the spy plane scenario, Soviet military officials insisted that the United States had deliberately sent an empty passenger plane across Kamchatka and Sakhalin.

Independent Soviet experts now believe that the bodies disintegrated under the tremendous impact of hitting the water. The final remains probably were devoured by crabs and other marine life.

A naval officer who took part in the search operation was quoted by Izvestia today as saying that three black boxes were recovered and sent to Moscow on a special flight. Five air force generals took possession of the precious cargo at Moscow airport.

Hoping Plane Was Empty

For the record, the Soviet Defense Ministry is sticking to the version of events provided by the armed forces chief of staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, at an unprecedented Moscow news conference a week after the incident: It was all a provocation; Washington sent KAL 007 over Kamchatka and Sakhalin to activate Soviet radar systems and observe the enemy's air defenses; the black boxes were never found.

Precisely who gave the order to shoot down KAL 007 is still unclear. An officer in the Soviet military counterintelligence agency GRU was quoted by Izvestia this week as saying he thought the decision to shoot was made within the Far Eastern military command. He conceded that information about the incident would have been transmitted to Moscow immediately by both the GRU and the antiaircraft defenses.

Establishing the truth is complicated by the fact that many of the military leaders directly involved still hold important positions. Ogarkov is head of the Soviet veterans' organization. His former deputy, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, is President Mikhail Gorbachev's military adviser. The former head of the Far Eastern military district, Gen. Ivan Tretyak, is now chief of Soviet air defenses. Tretyak has dismissed the Izvestia reports on KAL 007 as "70 percent invention."

Osipovich, who was sent into early retirement after a training accident, still clings desperately to the hope that there was no one on the plane. "He does not want these 269 bodies on his conscience," said Illesh, the Izvestia editor. "He desperately wants to believe that the plane was empty."

'Condemned to Die'

The Izvestia investigation, which has gone into a lengthy second series, has largely demolished the official Kremlin version of events. But it has not entirely borne out the official American version. In particular, the newspaper has not found any evidence to support early claims by the Reagan administration that Soviet pilots deliberately shot down a civilian aircraft. The failure of U.S. military controllers to warn KAL 007 of the impending danger is also mysterious.

"I am far from thinking that the blame for this tragedy lies entirely on us," said Illesh, who wants a public Kremlin investigation into the last flight of the Korean jumbo jet. "The passengers on board KAL 007 had become the hostages of two great powers colliding with each other. They were condemned to die."

Lt. Col. Gennadi Osipovich, pilot of the Su-15 interceptor that destroyed KAL Flight 007. He received instructions from:

Senior Lt. Vladimir Borisov, ground controller at Sokol Airport on Sakhalin Island. He received instructions from:

Maj. Alexander Dornarovich, deputy chief of staff of the air force unit based at Sokol military airfield on Sakhalin, who identified the target as a "hostile, to be destroyed if it crosses the state borders." His superior was:

Col. Kornukhov, commander of the Sokol unit, who received orders from:

Army Gen. Ivan Tretyok, commander of the far eastern theater in Khabarovsk, who reported to:

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov in Moscow. His superior was:

Defense Minister Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, a member of the Communist Party Politburo, who reported to:

Communist Party General Secretary Yuri Andropov.