Some foreign rescue teams have given up hope of finding more survivors in the rubble left by the Armenian earthquake, and they are heading home, the top U.S. disaster relief official said Thursday.

However, Soviet officials said the rescue effort would continue and denied reports that stricken cities would be bulldozed to prevent an epidemic.Voices and other signs of life in the ruins dropped sharply after Monday night, when temperatures fell below freezing, said Julia Taft, director of the U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance office, at a news briefing in Moscow.

"The hope of finding any more (survivors) is ended," she said.

The official news agency Tass reported that rescuers were still searching. On Wednesday, Soviet Health Minister Yevgeny Chazov vowed to continue the effort because 60 survivors had been found in the previous 24 hours.

Soviet media reported looting of fur coats from the rubble, tents from relief supplies at the Yerevan airport, and even jewelry from corpses. Tass said cargo is now being shipped from the airport under guard.

Soviet officials say the Dec. 7 quake killed 55,000 people in northwestern Armenia and left about 500,000 of the area's 700,000 people homeless.

Tass said Wednesday that 48 villages had been destroyed, in addition to the city of Spitak. The larger cities of Leninakan and Kirovakan suffered major damage, and Taft said another 52 villages also were damaged. Tass reported Wednesday that 21,755 bodies have been counted and identified so far.

Rescue teams with search dogs from Italy and West Germany told Jeff Sallot of the Globe and Mail of Toronto that Soviet authorities had ordered them home, saying they were ready to blast the ruins of buildings in Spitak and bulldoze the rubble to prevent decomposing bodies from starting an epidemic.

The Soviet Embassy in France denied similar reports from French media on Wednesday, Tass reported.

Some foreign rescue workers said they planned to keep combing the crumbled buildings for life, despite fog and rain that was turning to snow.

"We continue to look for people, especially with dogs," said Dr. Georges d'Allemagne of the relief organization Doctors Without Borders. "We think there are chances for about another week to find a few people."

However, Taft said the dogs' sense of smell becomes overwhelmed with the stench of death after several days, and they can no longer find survivors.

Michael Tamillow of Virginia said his team found two survivors Tuesday but none on Wednesday, Tass reported. "But the house where we dug Tuesday also seemed hopeless, so we do not have the right to leave," Tamillow said.

Snarled supply lines also have hampered the relief effort, and Pravda quoted Gen. Lt. V.C. Dubinyak Thursday as saying some of the medicine and other cargo pouring in from around the world was being stolen from Zvarnots Airport in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.