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By Shakeh Avoyan
Armenia is at risk of suffering another catastrophic earthquake that would wreak havoc on its capital Yerevan and kill hundreds of thousands of its residents, a leading Armenian seismic engineer claimed on Tuesday.

Mikael Melkumian, who heads the Armenian Association of Seismically Safe Construction, said the apocalyptic scenario is based on research conducted by himself and other local seismologists. Those include Sergey Balasanian, the late former chief of the National Seismic Protection Service.

“We arrived at the conclusion that the territory of Yerevan is a very high-risk area,” Melkumian told a news conference. “If we have an earthquake in Yerevan with a magnitude similar to that of the [1988] Spitak earthquake … then almost nothing will be left of Yerevan because according to our calculations, about 80 percent of buildings will be destroyed and we will have about 300,000 victims,” he said.

The 1988 earthquake destroyed much of northwestern Armenia, killing more than 25,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of others homeless. Thousands of them still huddle in ramshackle temporary shelters. The country had previously been hit by a similarly powerful calamity in the 17th century. Historians say its epicenter was near Garni, a village 20 kilometers east of Yerevan.

According to Melkumian, the Garni area is nestled on a dangerous fault that might one day send powerful tremors to the Armenian capital.

A senior official at the National Seismic Protection Service (NSPS) shared Melkumian’s concerns. “Professor Melkumian is one of the best specialists in his field,” the official told RFE/RL, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If, God forbids, Yerevan is hit by an earthquake as powerful as the Spitak earthquake, the number of victims could be very large indeed, because most buildings here have become weaker, especially after Spitak, and will not resist tremors.”

Balasanian, who died in a car crash last year, had argued in January 2004 that Armenia is part of a vast seismically active region where powerful earthquakes are not uncommon. Speaking in the wake of one such quake that razed the Iranian city of Bam, he warned that Armenia could be hit hard by its possible powerful aftershocks in the next few months.

The grim prediction, dismissed by the NSPS, never materialized, though. The head of the government agency, Alvaro Antonian, argued at the time that scientists around the world are unable to make precise quake forecasts.

Still, seismologists and construction specialists agree that many apartment buildings in Yerevan, built in Soviet times, are vulnerable to natural disasters. “Yerevan’s condition is not encouraging in that regard,” said Melkumian. “The main reason for that is that Yerevan was built in accordance with the former Soviet standards that underestimated seismic risks.”

Those standards, coupled with a poor quality of construction, have been widely blamed for the catastrophic death toll from the 1988 quake.
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