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Russians Send Mixed Messages About Quake Aid : Disaster: Yeltsin says Japan's help isn't needed. But rescue workers at scene plead for assistance.


NEFTEGORSK, Russia — Within days of one of this nation's deadliest earthquakes, leaders in Moscow insisted that they needed no outside help to deal with the tragedy.

"Russia has not accepted any foreign assistance for the time being and can cope with the situation on its own," President Boris N. Yeltsin said Wednesday, a day when Russian flags with black streamers flew at half-staff to mourn the earthquake victims.

But as the cost of rescuing and relocating survivors from the wreckage of this Far Eastern village mounted, officials in Neftegorsk admitted Wednesday that Russia could not afford to pay the entire bill from its own pinched pockets.

"We have all the machinery and manpower to finish the rescue work, but we need money because all those people need new homes," Gen. Sergei M. Udinov, Russia's deputy minister of emergency situations, said here. "Thank God for whatever foreigners can give us."

The mixed messages from Russia since Sunday's quake, which buried almost 2,000 people in the middle of the night and apparently killed most of them, reflect a tension between touchy national pride and the strains of the emergency on Russia's already beleaguered budget, which is closely monitored by the country's international lenders.

They also are a function of the ongoing dispute between Russia and Japan over possession of the Kuril Islands, an earthquake-prone chain in the northern Pacific. If Russia were to accept aid from Japan, Yeltsin said, "then they will take advantage, and next they'll say, 'Give us the Kuril Islands back.' "

At the same time, Yeltsin acknowledged the urgency of rescuing people who have been entombed for more than three days.

"Time is running out," he said. "People won't be able to hold out much longer."

Maj. Gen. Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia's minister of civil defense, emergencies and natural disasters, announced Wednesday that Neftegorsk, the village on Sakhalin island that lost all 17 of its apartment blocks in a maze of crumbling heaps, was not only destroyed by the quake but will not be rebuilt. He said the government will pay to relocate the survivors.

Rescue workers raised the confirmed death toll to 594 on Wednesday as more bodies were found in the rubble. For its relatively high death toll, the quake caused little damage beyond this village.

Yeltsin promised each family that was made homeless by the quake a $10,000 indemnity, but other officials said the overall cost of recovery will be millions of dollars.

Most homeless villagers scorned Yeltsin's offer, saying it was not enough to compensate for lost lives that they blamed on shoddy government construction of the apartment blocks. Some doubted that they would get any money at all.

"Maybe Yeltsin is rejecting this aid because he needs to feel strong and independent, but we could use anything because we have nothing," said Nadezhda G. Mukhina, 47, who lost her two sons in the quake.

Despite the Kremlin's thanks-but-no-thanks posture, humanitarian aid has trickled in from Europe and Japan in the form of medicine, tents, sleeping bags, kerosene lamps and stoves, and a portable hospital ward.

Russia already had many of these items, according to Alexei I. Kostyev, an official here dealing with emergency situations.

"What we do need are high-quality salvation specialists over the next four or five days while there is still a chance of saving people," he added.

The rescue operation is entirely in Russian hands, even though Moscow's current generation of specialists has dealt with just one quake of this magnitude--the one that killed about 25,000 people in Soviet Armenia in 1988.

Sergei F. Goncherov, director of the Russian Center for Medical Aid in Disasters, said Russia's 650 rescue workers here took lessons from the January quake in Kobe, Japan, and the April bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He said they learned that the most effective way to save people buried under rubble is to dig from below, not from above.

Goncherov's field hospital and staff, most of whom last saw duty with the Russian army in Chechnya, have treated 395 survivors pulled from the rubble.

Vadim I. Chichin, 58, appeared to awake from a long slumber when rescue workers discovered him Wednesday afternoon wearing only boxer shorts.

"Let me go, let me go. I want to go home," he shouted, standing on his own and squinting into the sun.

"Calm down, you are home," a rescue worker replied as the man was carried away on a stretcher.

Despite a delay getting cranes and bulldozers to the remote island, Russian rescuers have won high marks from international observers.

"The Russian teams are highly professional," said Flemming Nielsen, leader of a U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination team. "They are working with the right equipment. And as soon as they find someone alive they quickly get a doctor and put him in charge."

Hundreds of survivors are camped at the edges of the huge mountains of rubble, waiting to learn the fate of loved ones still trapped below.

Most have refused to live in donated tents, preferring the communal atmosphere of campfires in the subfreezing nights.

Each has a dramatic tale of rescue and dwindling hope of finding their loved ones.

Maria Gavrilova, a 57-year-old teacher, spent 24 hours buried in rubble until a 13-year-old neighbor scrambled free and found her son, who came with a group of friends and crowbars.

"My house fell down like a sandcastle," Gavrilova said. "I thought it was a dream until my son came and told me, 'Mother, the whole village has disappeared.' "

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