TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ Taiwan's most famous first lady endorsed the ruling Nationalist Party's presidential candidate today, urging the party to mend a split within its ranks and save the island from disaster.

The 102-year-old widow of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek made her appeal in a letter from her home in New York, where she has spent most of her time since her husband died in 1975.

Madame Chiang's endorsement came just days before Saturday's election, a tight three-way race that Nationalist presidential hopeful Lien Chan might lose.

Recently, opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian has received a string of endorsements from business leaders and advisers to President Lee Teng-hui, who is retiring after 12 years in office.

Madame Chiang, whose maiden name is Soong Mayling, has a small, but fiercely loyal, group of followers, most of them elderly people who fled to Taiwan after the communists took over China in 1949.

In her letter, Madame Chiang urged Lien to rally back elite party members who have left to support independent candidate James Soong, a former Nationalist leader who was ousted from the party for campaigning against Lien.

Madame Chiang's endorsement could sway some Soong supporters, who polls say has strong support from aging mainlanders.

``Once we stumble, it will lead our country and people into a disaster that there is no way for a comeback,'' she warned in the letter, which was handed out at a news conference.

She said Lien would usher in a new era with China, Taiwan's main rival.

Thanking Madame Chiang for her support, Lien told reporters, ``When you chose our party, you have stability, prosperity and reforms.''

The populist Soong said voters have more trust in the Nationalists who have recently left the party. ``Who's he trying to fool with Madame Chiang's letter?'' Soong said at a campaign stop.

Madame Chiang is still an honorary member of the Nationalist Party's Central Advisory Committee. But she has stayed away from politics since Taiwan ended martial law in 1987 and evolved into a democracy.

Also today, Chen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party accused the Nationalists of inspiring the worst one-day share price fall in a decade to rally support for Lien.

The Weighted Index plunged 617 points on Monday, the largest point-drop ever and the biggest percentage fall in a decade.

Share prices rallied today and closed up 23.63 points after four government-linked funds bought heavily to calm the market.

``The Nationalist Party has lost confidence in itself,'' Chen said at a meeting with securities traders. ``Its confidence has crashed, so it used the terror card to scare voters.''

In recent weeks, the Nationalists have warned voters that Chen would crash the stock market and ignite a war with China. Chen was a vocal supporter of Taiwan's formal independence but has since softened his stance.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing has threatened to attack if the island tries to break way permanently.

In Beijing, China today dismissed Taiwan's upcoming presidential election as a local vote that would not change the island's status as a part of China.

``We are willing to see the Taiwan people be able to exercise their rights and both sides of the Strait develop business relations, but if something happens that the Chinese people and Chinese government do not want to see, if Taiwan independence arises, we will not sit idly by,'' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said.

Beijing regards the island as a rebel province that one day must be reunited with the Chinese mainland.

Sun said Saturday's vote for president was a local election ``that cannot lead to the separation of Taiwan or change the fact that Taiwan is part of China.''

___

On the Net: Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party, www.dpp.org.tw

Independent James Soong, www.soong.org.tw/global/

Nationalist Vice President Lien Chan, www.yes2000.org.tw/english/