More people are being discharged from the military after volunteering that they are homosexual, but Defense Secretary William Cohen says he does not believe that means harassment of gays is on the rise.

"This is a trend that caught my eye," Cohen said of the increase today during an interview on National Public Radio.The defense secretary said about 82 percent of those who were given administrative discharges on the basis of homosexuality during 1997 had given "purely voluntary" statements that they were gay.

During that same year, 997 people were given such discharges, a major increase from 850 the year before, according to a new study that has not yet been made public by the Pentagon.

Critics contend the rise is due to harassment of gays, but some Pentagon officials have speculated there may be other reasons since many of those who are voluntarily disclosing their homosexuality do so shortly after enlisting. Some officers say it could be used as an excuse by people who are unhappy with being in the military and want to leave. However, the officials said they could not offer any figures to back up such a claim, since the military does not follow those people who return to private life.

On the radio program, Cohen said he had ordered the study to ensure "there are no witchhunts going on." The secretary said he believed the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy of the Clinton administration is working, and if not, he will make sure the policy is followed.

"It is conceivable, it is possible, some commanders have not yet heard" his latest directions, Cohen said on the radio program. "I want to make it clear. . . . There is to be no pursuit, no harassment," Cohen said.

On Monday, Cohen said, "There are some indications that there has been an increase as far as some of the people who have declared themselves to be homosexual and have opted to getting out of the military. . . . But in terms of the policy itself, overall, I think it's working."

Cohen, appearing at a photo session Monday, was asked about figures reportedly contained in the Defense Department's draft report on the policy.

"We intend to continue to emphasize the fact that this policy should not be abused, that there should be no attempt to hunt or seek out those who are - may be - homosexual, and that we intend to strictly enforce the "don't ask, don't tell" policy," Cohen said.

Those dismissed for homosexuality receive an administrative discharge, which does not carry a bad-conduct stigma.

The policy, adopted soon after President Clinton took office, is supposed to allow gays to serve if they keep their sexual orientation private, and to punish those who engage in homosexual acts or take actions that call attention to their orientation.

Commanders are not to ask about sexual orientation or launch investigations without credible evidence.

But critics of the Pentagon's approach say they believe that harassment of homosexuals is on the increase.