MOSCOW — The spy charges against American reporter Nicholas Daniloff and Soviet physicist Gennady F. Zakharov can be "settled" but Washington holds the key to their fate, a senior Soviet official said Thursday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir F. Petrovsky made this observation as Daniloff, the Moscow correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, spent a 12th day in Lefortovo prison here. U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, continued to seek his release.
Petrovsky's remark, at a press conference, was the latest signal from the Soviets that they want to avoid any confrontation with the United States and keep the planning on track for a summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Daniloff's wife, Ruth, and his colleagues in the U.S. News & World Report bureau here anxiously awaited developments.
"We're on tenterhooks," Ruth Daniloff said after her husband said Wednesday that his KGB interrogators had endorsed a plan that would see Daniloff released into the custody of the U.S. ambassador here and Zakharov into the custody of the Soviet ambassador in Washington, while both await their trials or further negotiations.
U.S. officials contend that Daniloff, who was arrested on Aug. 30 as he accepted a package of materials from a Soviet acquaintance, was framed in retaliation for the arrest in New York, on Aug. 23, of Zakharov, a Soviet U.N. employee accused of buying blueprints for an American jet engine.
Soviet authorities have said that the package Daniloff accepted contained top secret maps and photographs of military installations. Daniloff said his acquaintance had told him the parcel contained newspaper clippings.
Petrovsky said a scheduled Sept. 19-20 meeting between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard A. Sheverdnadze should not be held hostage to the Daniloff case.
"The American side knows quite well that the case of Daniloff is quite legitimate," he said, even though President Reagan has personally assured Gorbachev that Daniloff is not a spy.
"We have established contacts with the appropriate authorities," Petrovsky continued. "Everything depends on the American side."
Gennady I. Gerasimov, chief spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, answered a question about Daniloff by quoting President Reagan's comment to reporters in Washington on Wednesday night.
"I don't want to rock the boat; it isn't safe to comment on it," Gerasimov said, indicating as did Reagan that negotiations were at a critical and sensitive stage.
American diplomats have said they want Daniloff's immediate release, without a trial, and Reagan has put this in the form of a personal appeal, but Soviet officials have indicated that Daniloff will be tried nevertheless.