MOSCOW — Pravda, the newspaper of the ruling Soviet Communist Party, apparently has broken tradition by printing a letter of protest from the U.S. Embassy.
As might be expected, Pravda rejected the criticism and accused the author, Minister-Counselor Richard E. Combs Jr., of trying to encroach upon "freedom of the press" in the Soviet Union.
But Western diplomats said it was remarkable that Combs' highly critical letter was printed at all.
The exchange centered on a May 7 story in Pravda suggesting that the CIA arranged the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that led to an American relatiatory air strike against Libya.
Combs, who is acting head of the embassy in the absence of Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman, fired off a strong complaint to Pravda Editor Victor G. Afanasiev.
"I am frankly astonished that a responsible newspaper, the organ of the ruling party of the Soviet Union, should believe these lies and give them space on its pages," Combs wrote. He requested a retraction of the charges, first reported by the South Yemen news agency ANA, terming them "low fantasies." In its reply, Pravda objected to the tone of the letter and to Combs' assertion that the embassy would keep an eye on the paper's contents.
"Since when does the U.S. Embassy consider that it has a right to encroach upon the freedom of the press and information and assume the role of a censor deciding what should and should not be published?" Pravda asked. "This is not the United States."
Last week, the government newspaper Izvestia published a letter from the West German ambassador complaining about the newspaper's criticism of West German government actions to restrict food imports from Eastern Europe after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in the Soviet Ukraine.
Veteran Kremlin-watchers said they could not remember when complaints from foreigners were ever published in the Soviet newspapers. In the past, non-critical letters from U.S. ambassadors have been published on special occasions, such as the anniversary of the end of World War II.
The new policy could be part of the demonstration of public openness, called glasnost, that has been advocated by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.