MOSCOW, MARCH 15 -- A senior Soviet law official said gangs of youths hunting Armenians committed "terrible crimes" in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait last month, according to a newspaper reaching Moscow today.

Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Katusev, giving the most serious official picture yet to emerge of the disturbances, said the rioters staged "pogroms" -- a clear reference to the ethnic nature of the violence.

Official accounts of the incidents on Feb. 28, in which police say 32 people died, have avoided any specific reference to their racial character.

"In Sumgait," Katusev told the Azerbaijani Communist Party newspaper Bakinsky Rabochy, "there were massive disorders, accompanied by pogroms, arson and other outrages . . . the most terrible crimes."

The perpetrators were being hunted down by a special force of law officers and police investigators and would face the "most severe penalties," he said.

Analysts said Katusev's use of the term "pogrom" -- a Russian word originally used to describe the organized massacre of Jews under the old Czarist empire -- marked a new stage in official reports of the upheaval.

Accounts gathered by Moscow dissidents who have traveled to the area suggest rioters committed atrocities against Armenians, including the murder and mutilation of pregnant women in a maternity hospital.

Katusev gave no details of the violence, which has been only sparsely reported in the central Moscow media. But he said there had been a number of cases during the riots when Azerbaijanis sought to protect Armenians.

The newspaper quoted him as saying that many leaders of the riots had already been arrested and investigations would be pursued until everyone involved in organizing or taking part in the disturbances had been detained.

Local residents said the violence only stopped when troops took control of the city, an industrial center near the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. A nighttime curfew was imposed for nearly two weeks.

The Sumgait riots began after two Azerbaijani youths died in earlier clashes that broke out over the proposed redrawing of boundaries between the two neighboring Soviet republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Sumgait violence erupted after the local parliament in the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan called for reunification with Armenia.