Appeals court approval Friday of a partial merger for Detroit's daily newspapers brought cautious hope at the Detroit Free Press, which owners plan to close if the deal is not ultimately approved.

The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel upholds a decision of Aug. 8, 1988, by then-Attorney General Edwin Meese under which all operations of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press except news and editorial will be combined. It would become the largest of 20 joint operating agreements in the nation.Foes of the agreement, who took the case to court after approval by Meese, said at a late-afternoon news conference they would like to appeal. But they said a final decision will be delayed until early next week so that their attorneys can study the ruling over the weekend.

State Sen. John Kelly, a leading figure in the anti-JOA Citizens for an Independent Press, said the judges who approved the merger were unclear on their reasons. He called the dissent, by contrast, "extraordinarily strong."

Possible options include seeking a hearing by the full appeals court or the Supreme Court.

"This is clearly good news for the future of the Free Press, good news for our readers and the people of Michigan," said Free Press publisher David Lawrence.

"The decision will preserve the Free Press and provide to the citizens of Detroit and Michigan the continued benefits of two daily newspapers," said James Batten, president of Knight-Ridder Inc., which owns the Free Press.

News officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

A management committee of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, made up of three members from Gannett Co. and two from Knight-Ridder, was to decide the next move toward the merger. The morning and evening Detroit News is owned by Gannett.

Ed Wendover, publisher of Community Crier in suburban Plymouth and part of the citizens' group formed to oppose the JOA, de-nounced as "inappropriate" the court's decision to lift a stay which had prevented implementation of the merger while appeals are pending.

Wendover said unless the papers indicate they will not be moving ahead immediately, his group "will seek to reimpose the stay until we've had a complete opportunity to review the decision" and decide on a possible appeal.

Kelly, a Detroit Democrat, said commencing the merger at this stage would be "very unfair to the employees of the Free Press."