MOSCOW (AP) _ The number of Western journalists covering Lithuania's standoff with Moscow from the Baltic republic's capital has dropped sharply since the Soviet government ordered the area closed to most foreigners.

More than 100 journalists based in Moscow and other European capitals followed events from the Lithuanian capital, but most were expected to be out of Vilnius on Sunday. Only a handful remained on Saturday.

Despite the greater freedom of movement permitted under glasnost, Soviet authorities have routinely closed areas stricken by ethnic violence to foreign journalists. Some regions regarded as strategically or politically sensitive are closed at all times, others only temporarily.

The order restricting journalists' access to Lithuania came as the Kremlin increased pressure on the rebellious republic and as Lithuanian leaders sought to use the Western media to protect them from a use of force to crush their effort to establish an independent state.

Moscow-based foreign journalists must give the Soviet Foreign Ministry advance notice of any plans to travel outside the Soviet capital, including the dates and means of their travel and where they will stay outside Moscow.

The Soviet government may refuse to permit the trip, temporarily closing areas to foreigners. The Foreign Ministry on March 23 stopped permitting most Moscow-based reporters from traveling to Lithuania and ordered a number of diplomats out of the republic.

However, journalists already in Lithuania were permitted to stay.

Four days later, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yuri Gremitskykh told a Moscow news briefing that ''foreigners have been asked to leave the borders of Lithuania and temporarily refrain from entering its territory.''

Most correspondents accredited by the Foreign Ministry began returning to Moscow, but The Associated Press and some other organizations kept their journalists in place until contacted directly by Foreign Ministry officials.

On Friday, Foreign Ministry officials called news organizations with correspondents remaining in Vilnius and said they must leave by Sunday.

The AP, which still had a reporter and two photographers covering the story, said it would comply with the ministry's instructions by the deadline.