The Soviet Union asked the United States yesterday to send rescue teams and medical supplies to aid victims of the devastating earthquake in Armenia. And U.S. foreign aid officials were working feverishly last night to get a planeload of personnel and supplies ready for departure from New York's Kennedy International Airport.
The officials said they hoped a cargo plane would be ready to leave early today, carrying medical supplies, eight teams of dogs trained to sniff out people buried in rubble, and six physicians, five of whom are trauma specialists. They said the sixth would be Robert Gale, an expert on radiation medicine who assisted the Soviets after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. The group also will include three Armenians to act as interpreters and advisers on local customs and problems.
The Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which is directing the effort, was arranging for a chartered commercial plane that would fly first to Dulles International Airport and then to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
First news of the Soviet request came yesterday when reporters were summoned to the Soviet embassy here, where Yevgeny Kutovoy, the deputy chief of the embassy, announced that he had just come from the State Department where OFDA officials had agreed to the aid request. However, Kutovoy also did not have details of when the plane would leave or how much assistance the United States would provide.
"We are ready to receive medicines and medical equipment, syringes, medications, blood transfusion systems, medical and other equipment for rebuilding hospitals, outpatient clinics, kindergartens, nurseries, tents, blankets, clothing," he said.
He added that the Soviet government "would welcome participation of special U.S. organizations with expertise in earthquake debris search and rescue operations."
President Reagan had assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of American willingness to help before Gorbachev broke off his visit to New York and flew home Thursday. But the Soviets did not act immediately, and when their aid request was made, it appeared to catch the White House and State Department by surprise.
Earlier, administration spokesmen said the Soviets had not asked for direct aid and added that such a request appeared unlikely. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, "Please keep in mind that this is a major, superpower nation . . . They have a number of resources."
However, AID officials said that OFDA director Julia V. Taft earlier yesterday had ordered that preliminary preparations, including putting rescue workers on alert, be made in case a request did come. The officials said that some rescue personnel were flown to New York yesterday afternoon. They were housed at the Hilton Hotel near Kennedy airport, and others were being moved there last night.
Jeffrey Colyer, an AID official, said in New York last night, "We are willing to supply additional physicians . . . As yet, it is unclear what the Soviets would like from us." When asked when the flight might depart, he said it still faces "a lot of logistical problems. We hope to go as soon as possible, hopefully by tomorrow."
Airport officials in New York said that a large Aeroflot plane had taken off from Kennedy at 5:15 p.m. and that some American rescue-team workers and a small amount of equipment were on board. AID officials said they could not confirm that was the case.
Kutovoy said his government would gratefully receive donations from private organizations and individuals, but said the first priority was cooperating with the United States to get the urgently needed medical and rescue assistance.Staff writers Bill McAllister in Washington and Howard Kurtz in New York City contributed to this report.