LONDON -- Author Salman Rushdie, whose controversial novel, "The Satanic Verses," inspired outraged Iranian Muslims to put a $6-million price on his head, apologized Saturday for the "distress" his work has meant "to sincere followers of Islam."

But after a series of conflicting statements by the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, it appeared that the novelist's apology would not satisfy Iran's spiritual guide and supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Five days ago, Khomeini called on Muslims worldwide to track Rushdie and his publishers down and "kill them so that no one ever again would dare to insult the sanctities of Muslims."

In a dispatch filed from London shortly after Rushdie's midday apology, IRNA said that it fell "well short" of what was necessary.

Hours later, a second IRNA dispatch, from Tehran, declared: "The statement, though far too short of a repentance, is generally seen as sufficient . . . to warrant his pardon by the masses in Iran and elsewhere in the world."

But an hour after that, IRNA retracted the second dispatch, saying its content was a "personal observation" by one of its writers and "does not allow for any specific interpretation whatsoever." That apparently left Rushdie, under armed police guard in Britain, still under threat of Khomeini's call for his death.

Rushdie's three-sentence statement Saturday, made public by his London agent, followed hints Friday by Iranian President Ali Khamenei that repentence could result in lifting the death threat that last week drove the Indian-born novelist and his American wife into hiding.

"As author of 'The Satanic Verses,' I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel," Rushdie said through his agent.

"I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam," he added. "Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."

The contradictory series of reactions from the official Iranian news agency began with the declaration that Rushdie, while formally apologizing, had "made no indication of repentance or that his slanderous book would be withdrawn" from sale. Then the revised reaction seemed to suggest that Iranian authorities were trying to distance themselves from an international furor that threatened to harm Iran's drive to improve ties with the West.

Then a third version, effectively reverting to the first position, was seen by analysts as possibly reflecting internal discord on the issue among Iran's leaders.

Government officials here were waiting for a more authoritative response from Iran to Rushdie's statement. A spokesman said the Foreign Office learned of the apology after it had been made public and added, "If it serves to calm passions, then that can only be a good thing."

Britain Freezes Relations

Britain has frozen relations with Iran in the wake of Khomeini's death threat against one of its citizens but has stopped short of more dramatic gestures of diplomatic protest that have been made by some of its West European neighbors.

France said Saturday that its ambassador to Iran, originally scheduled to return to Tehran today, would delay his departure from Paris. Earlier, West Germany had recalled its ambassador "for consultations," and the Netherlands' foreign minister canceled a planned visit to Iran.

British officials have been working to improve relations with Tehran, partly in hopes of helping gain freedom for a British citizen imprisoned in Iran as a spy and for three other Britons held hostage by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

London reopened its embassy in Tehran late last year and was in the process of staff building, and an ambassador was slated to return there in May. It was that buildup that was frozen after Khomeini's death threat and the subsequent offer by Iranian religious and business leaders of about $6 million in bounty for Rushdie.

British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said he hopes for a strong, united front against the Iranian threats to emerge from a scheduled meeting in Brussels on Monday of the European Community's foreign ministers.

Muslim leaders in the United States applauded Rushdie's apology, although some described it as only a "first step."

"That's very good. We were looking forward to that," said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. "I hope the publisher will do the same thing and withdraw the book. . . . Freedom of speech is fine, but the speech must be responsible."