As the death toll in the Armenian earthquake mounts, the rescue effort is slowly extending into the Armenian countryside, where destruction was reportedly spread over a radius of 50 miles from the quake's epicenter. Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov told correspondents yesterday afternoon that the official casualty figure for last Wednesday's earthquake now stands at 55,000 dead and 13,000 injured. But he noted that these figures did not include rural areas and had been compiled over 30 hours before the briefing.
So far 5,400 people had been pulled alive from the rubble, Mr. Gerasimov said, and a further 13,100 bodies recovered. A total of 28 villages were destroyed by the quake, official reports say. Initial accounts of the damage speak of high death rates in rural areas.
Specialists say that it is too early to calculate the earthquake's impact on the program of economic reforms planned by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In fact a number of major economic measures, including plans for to make the ruble convertible on foreign exchange markets, have been announced this week.
Dmitri Murzin, an editor at Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya, one of the country's main economic dailies, predicted today that the quake ``will make itself felt'' in economic reform for the next one or two years.
He added, however, that immediate impact of the earthquake on industrial production may not turn out to as great as it currently seems. A massive amount of heavy machinery is flooding into Armenia; but, he noted, most of it was being provided by the armed forces.
What is clear, however, is that the plan to build 5 million square meters of new housing over the next two years for the half-million homeless is extremely ambitious and will likely prove far beyond the resources of the Armenian government.
In 1986, the last year for which statistics are available, the Armenian republic built a total of 18,200 apartments. The total area of the apartments was 1.29 million square meters. The latest figure, therefore, presupposes that the Armenians will have to double their previous work rate, or that the government will have to divert resources from other parts of the country.
This plan seems destined to add further to an already serious social and political problem: Many Soviet citizens have to wait years for their own apartment. The government has promised to provide every family with a home of its own by the year 2000 - a promise that Soviet economists say will be difficult to keep, even without natural disasters.
Officials speak of plans to evacuate more than 57,000 people in the next 10 days. Immediately after that, construction teams will start arriving, they add. So far, Mr. Gerasimov said, 24,000 people have left.
The evacuation is being hampered by a continuing flow of people into the area - most to search for relatives, but also some Armenian refugees from the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan. Despite the disaster, hundreds of Azerbaijanis and Armenians are continuing to flee ethnic tension and move back to their native republics each day, Gerasimov said.
In a further sign of continuing ethnic tension, Gerasimov indicated that two more members of the Karabakh Committee, the group agitating for the transfer of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia had been arrested in the last 24 hours. The total number of Karabakh Committee members under arrest, he told the briefing, now stood at seven.
Unrest of another sort was reported by the Soviet media yesterday. Troops are said to have been deployed in some of the stricken cities to prevent thefts and looting.
In a Yerevan press conference given Monday, but broadcast in Moscow only on Tuesday evening, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov said that a curfew was in effect in 16 districts of Armenia with a mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani population, 12 similar districts in Azerbaijan, plus Yerevan and the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. Curfews had also been in imposed in Leninakan and Spitak, the prime minister said. In the case of these two towns, he said, the measures had been taken to facilitate relief operations, not to prevent ethnic violence.
Ryzhkov also spoke of ``extremely gross violations'' in both the planning and construction of buildings in the stricken area. These had contributed to the scale of the disaster, and was now the subject of investigation.