U.S. aid to victims of the earthquake that devastated areas of Armenia has deeply touched the Soviet government, the Soviet ambassador to the United States says.
"Never before in the history of the Soviet Union have we had international cooperation," Yuri Dubinin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, said Thursday at a luncheon with religious and business leaders assisting in relief efforts."We are deeply moved by this absolutely new element of our relationship."
Relief organizers, meanwhile, announced that aid will continue to flow to Armenia, including about $800,000 worth of machinery from Fiat and drugs from American companies, despite indications from the Soviet government that it was discontinuing rescue efforts.
The U.S. government has not officially helped the Soviet Union since the Lend-Lease program that ended after World War II. Efforts to assist in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster were private.
At Thursday's meeting, John M. Evans, deputy director of the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at the State Department, said that when news of the scope of the disaster reached President Reagan, "there was never a single question about whether or not the government would try to help to the best of its ability."
The Dec. 7 earthquake, centered in Soviet Armenia, devastated the cities of Spitak, Leninakan and Kirovakan and killed about 55,000 people. In rural areas, the earthquake leveled 25 villages and damaged 100 more.
According to Evans, about 700,000 people are homeless - a figure Dubinin confirmed. Officials in Moscow, however, have estimated the number of homeless at 500,000. Evans said 130,000 people were injured.
Evans said the U.S. government had provided more than $1.55 million in aid and private American groups had provided more than $3 million. The international community had provided nearly $37.5 million in aid, he said.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which organized the working luncheon, told The Associated Press that Italian automaker Fiat was donating 1 billion lira, or slightly less than $800,000, in heavy duty trucks, tractors, excavation machines and earth removal equipment to the relief efforts.
On Monday major U.S. drug companies will meet to determine which company can send which supplies to the Soviet Union, he said.
The U.S. government will not be involved in the reconstruction of the area, which the Soviets estimate will cost $3.17 billion, Evans said.
Dubinin, asked about criticism that the relief efforts have been uncoordinated and ineffectual, said: "We have difficulties and we have critics. We are trying to take into account every critic, from the Armenian population, from abroad."
Another problem, Dubinin acknowledged, is that "the people do not want to leave this devastated region."
"It is something human, it is something understandable, because they have their land there, they have their buildings there, they would like to be present, they would like to see whether there is a chance to see somebody, loved ones, rescued. It is natural. But it is very difficult," Dubinin said.