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A devastating earthquake wiped out villages and leveled cities in Armenia, and Soviet officials said Thursday that thousands of people were killed. Other reports said tens of thousands died.

Soviet officials rushed military surgeons and tons of medical supplies into the mountainous southern republic of 3.3 million people, where at least 50 children were reported buried by rubble when their school collapsed.Officials set up a "helicopter bridge" to take the injured north to hospitals in neighboring Soviet Georgia.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev cut short his visit to the United States, and aides said he would fly to Armenia to take command of the rescue operation.

Soviet officials reported thousands of people were killed but provided no detailed casualty count.

Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America in New York, quoted sources in Armenia as saying the death toll could reach 70,000.

Japan's Kyodo News Service quoted Armenian officials as saying 50,000 people were killed. The United News of India, quoting Foreign Ministry officials in Moscow, also said 50,000 people died.

None of the reports could be confirmed.

The official Soviet news agency Tass reported that destruction also occurred in Georgia and the Azerbaijan republic in the northern Caucasus. Tent cities for evacuees were set up virtually throughout northwestern Armenia, which was hardest hit by the quake.

Military surgeons "are carrying out a series of difficult operations, including on children, in field conditions," army Gen. Vladimir Arkhipov told Tass. The agency said a Red Cross plane brought relief supplies, including 20,000 blood transfusion kits, to Armenia.

The earthquake, which struck Wednesday at midmorning, wiped out Spitak, a town of 16,000 about 55 miles northwest of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, a government newspaper said. Izvestia said just one of the town's eight schools remained standing.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake measured 6.9 on the Richter scale.

State television showed film of crumbled buildings in Spitak and Kirovakan, Armenia's third-largest city. In one shot, a man put his hands over his head in grief as he stood in the rubble of a collapsed building.

"Practically all apartment buildings of nine floors or higher are destroyed," the official newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda said. "There is significant damage in five-story apartment buildings. Only individual one-story and two-three story homes of old construction remain whole."

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported from Leninakan, a city of 250,000 about 30 miles from the epicenter, that preliminary reports indicated "tens of thousands of people became victims of the earthquake."

Albert Khachatryan of the Armenian Ministry of Health said in a telephone interview that 2,000 injured people had been brought to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, from Len-inakan, Kirovakan and Spitak, and more were expected.

Nora Milikyan, an editor of the official Armenian news agency Armen-press, said in a telephone interview from Yerevan that "the worst place was Spitak."

"The entire town was destroyed - the hospitals and the schools and the factories. All the houses were destroyed. There is nothing left there," she said.

Asked for the telephone number of the police station in Spitak, deputy duty officer Lyova Oganisyan at the Interior Ministry in Armenia said it wouldn't do any good because the station was destroyed.

Gennady I. Gerasimov, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in New York: "A small village has practically disappeared from the face of the earth." He did not identify it or elaborate.

Gerasimov later dismissed speculation that Gorbachev was cutting short his visit to the United States in order to deal with political problems at home following Wednesday's sudden resignation of army chief Sergei Akhromeyev.

"There is national tragedy there (in Armenia), and our leader must be there where people suffer. This is the only reason (for the return)," he told CBS-TV's "This Morning."

Gorbachev's appearance in Armenia could improve central government ties with the restive region, which has been torn by violent ethnic strife between Armenians, who are mostly Christian, and predominantly Moslem Azerbaijanis.

The population of Armenia has risen markedly in recent weeks as settlers flee the ethnic violence, Iz-vestia said. About 180,000 refugees reportedly have fled across the border between the two republics the last three weeks. Foreign reporters had not been allowed into the region because of the unrest.

Komsomolskaya Pravda said today that soldiers pulled the bodies of more than 50 children from a school that collapsed in Leninakan, which is near the Soviet-Turkish border. Several children were found alive.

At least four deaths from the collapse of 50 houses were reported Wednesday in eastern Turkey by that country's state press.

A quake of 6.9 on the Richter scale is capable of causing widespread damage. The scale is a measure of ground motion as recorded on seismographs. Every increase of one number means a tenfold increase in magnitude. Thus a reading of 7.5 reflects an earthquake 10 times stronger than one of 6.5.