MOSCOW -- A powerful earthquake rocked eastern Turkey and the Soviet Republic of Armenia Wednesday, causing widespread casualties, collapsing buildings and leaving thousands homeless, Turkish and Soviet authorities said.
The morning quake, measuring 6.5 to 6.9 on the open-ended Richter scale, was the biggest temblor to jolt the border region in 80 years, the official Tass news agency said.
Only five deaths -- three women and two children in Turkey- were confirmed immediately but both Soviet and Turkish officials and news reports indicated that the death figures will soar dramatically when rescue teams account for the missing.
From New York, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent a telegram of condolences to the government and the people of Armenia, saying 'I have been told that an earthquake of unprecedented force has brought tragic consquences -- many deaths.'
'Much devastation and casualties are reported from several districts of Armenia. Particular damage was caused to the towns of Leninakan, Kirovakan, and several district localities,' the official Tass news agency said.
'By preliminary estimates, thousands of people have been left homeless, and there have been deaths and injuries,' Soviet TV said in a report from Kirovokan, third largest city in Armenia with 165,000 people, 30 miles east of Lenninakan.
Government spokesman Vadim Perfilyev and Tass said that Leninakan, second largest city of Armenia with a population of 228,000, suffered even greater damage and casualties than Kirovokan but gave no specific details.
The quake was centered south of the Caucases Mountains in the Soviet Central Asia, near Leninakan and between the Georgian capital of Tblisi and the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Tass said. Each capital has a population of about 1 million.
Turkish officials in Kars Province, bordering the Soviet Union, said the earthquake registered 6.5 on the Richter scale. In Washington, U.S. Geological Survey spokesmen said the quake measured 6.9, a temblor capable of causing severe damage, and was followed five minutes later by an aftershock measuring 5.8.
'Lamps swung and people went into the streets,' one resident said in Artvin, close to Kars and the Georgia Republic. Each tremor lasted about one minute and was accompanied 'by a sound like thunder.'
The Turkish officials said homes in the Kars provincial villages of Boyuntas, Ucpinar and Kalkankale, all about 8 miles from the Soviet border, collapsed about 120 homes as the temblor rolled through the region about 9:44 a.m. (2:44 EST).
Three women and two children were killed in the villages and the death toll was expected to increase substantially, the semi-official Anatolian News Agency said.
Officials in the Red Crescent organization, Turkey's equivalent of the Red Cross, said 5,000 blankets, about 150 tents, two mobile kitchens and food has been sent to the Kars region.
Officials reached by telephone from the Turkish capital of Ankara said the quake also was felt in the city of Kars, about 575 miles east of Ankara. Some houses were damaged in the city, but no casualties reported immediately.
Soviet authorities rushed rescue workers and soldiers to stricken Armenia, which has been reeling all year from an ethnic conflict.
'Vitally important installations are being restored first and foremost,' Tass said. 'Working on restoration and rescue jobs alongside military units and civil defense detachments are numerous volunteers. Medical teams have been dispatched to the area.'
'As to the number of people who may have suffered, we have no precise information at this point because it occurred not too long ago and we are still awaiting details,' Soviet government spokesman Vadim Perfilyev said.
Minor tremors were also felt in Iran's northwestern provinces of East and West Azarbaijan, close to the Soviet border, the Islamic Republic News Agency said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The temblor was felt as far away as Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, 250 miles southeast of Tbilisi, according to Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency. Until the advent of glasnost, or openness, Soviet reports about disasters were scanty. The worst earthquake of recent memory was in the Soviet republic of Moldavia in 1986 when one person was killed and 558 injured in a 6.5 quake on the Richter scale. In March 1984, a earthquake that measured 7.1 on the Richter scale left more than 100 people injured in Georgia Republic in 1986.
The earthquake added to the ethnic problems in Armenia now faced faced with an influx of thousands of recently arrived Armenian refugees from Nagorno Karbach, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan Republic.
Nagorno Karabach, whose population is 80 percent Christian Armenian, has beenruled by Moslem Azerbaijan since 1923. Ten months of strikes and rallies by Armenians ave failed to transfer rule of the contested area to Armenia.