Iran's President Ali Khamenei said Friday a death threat against British author Salman Rushdie might be lifted if he apologizes to Moslems for blaspheming their religion.

Khamenei's statement at Friday prayers in Tehran was punctuated by cries of "Death to Britain" from thousands of worshippers enraged by Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses.""This wretched man has no choice but to die because he has confronted a billion Moslems and the imam (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini)," Khamenei declared in a sermon reported by the official Iranian news agency IRNA.

"Of course, he may repent and say `I made a blunder' and apologize to Moslems and the imam. Then it is possible that the people may pardon him," he said.

Khomeini, Iran's supreme spiritual leader, told Moslems around the world Tuesday to hunt down and kill Rushdie.

The row has echoed around the world with Rushdie in hiding, his British publishers under police guard, Western leaders denouncing the Iranian threats and Moslems in many lands voicing outrage over the novel.

Khamenei's sermon was the first signal that Iran might seek to defuse the furor, which has damaged Tehran's recent efforts to improve relations with the West. He told worshippers Iran held the British government responsible for allowing the publication of Rushdie's novel.

But he ordered them not to go to British or other foreign embassies to protest, declaring that anyone attacking embassies could be a traitor.

"If you don't like British or American policies, the way (to express grievances) is not like some who go over embassy walls in an uncontrolled manner.

"I bear witness that such an action is absolutely, absolutely harmful for Islam and Moslems and detrimental for the Islamic Republic. The enemies and infiltrators may do such things . . . but anyone who consciously does it is committing treason."

In Bombay, where Rushdie was born into a Moslem family, Indian police declared a state of alert throughout the city Friday after a threat that British Airways planes would be bombed and prominent Indians killed until the novelist comes out of hiding.

An anonymous caller telephoned the warning to a local news agency in the name of the "Iranian Guards."

Friday was to be the start of an 11-city promotional tour of the United States by Rushdie, but the book's U.S. publisher, Viking Penguin Inc., canceled the tour because of the threats. Rushdie, 41, of Great Britain, was reported to be in hiding.

Viking Penguin executives were wearing bulletproof vests at the office, the Daily News in New York reported Friday, citing unidentified sources. And Thursday the company received its ninth bomb threat since December. Workers were sent home and told to stay there Friday, too.

Viking Penguin began a second printing of the book last week, according to a company spokesman. The first run was 50,000 copies.

"We're printing to meet demand," the spokesman said Thursday. He asked that his name not be used, citing the bomb threats at the company's New York headquarters.

He said the $19.95 hardcover has hit five regional best-seller lists - in this week's Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe and next week's San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post.



The nation's largest bookseller, Waldenbooks, ordered "The Satanic Verses" off store shelves for fear that threats of violence against the books' author and publisher might extend to its employees. But the book was missing from amny bookstore shelves Friday for another reason: Sales were booming.