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Iran's twin quakes kill hundreds, flatten mud-brick villages

Nobody was killed or hurt in the nearby city of Tabriz, however, thanks to more substantial construction materials than in the countryside.

By Yeganeh TorbatiReuters / August 12, 2012

Rescue teams search for victims in the earthquake-stricken village of Varzaghan in East Azarbaijan August 11. Two powerful earthquakes killed 250 people and injured around 1,800 in northwest Iran, where rescue workers frantically combed the rubble of dozens of villages throughout the night and into Sunday as medical staff desperately tried to save lives.

Farshid Tighehsaz/Reuters

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Overcrowded hospitals in northwest Iran struggled to cope with thousands of earthquake victims on Sunday and rescuers raced to reach remote villages after two powerful quakes killed nearly 300 people.

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Thousands huddled in makeshift camps or slept in the street after Saturday's quakes in fear of more aftershocks, 60 of which had already struck. A lack of tents and other supplies left them exposed to the night chill, one witness told Reuters.

"I saw some people whose entire home was destroyed, and all their livestock killed," Tahir Sadati, a local photographer, said by telephone. "People need help, they need warm clothes, more tents, blankets, and bread."

The worst damage and most casualties appeared to have been in rural villages around the towns of Ahar, Varzaghan, and Harees, near the major city of Tabriz, Iranian media reported.

Tabriz resident Ahmad told Reuters his cousin living in a village near Ahar was killed and that his body had already been found.

"Nobody knows what happened to his wife and two daughters," aged 4 and 7, Ahmad said. "We fear that if rescuers don't get to them soon, they will lose their lives too if they're still alive."

Officials: All freed from rubble

But Iranian officials said rescue operations had ended by Sunday afternoon and that all those trapped beneath the rubble had been freed, Iran's English-language Press TV reported.

Many villages are hard to reach by road, hindering rescue efforts. Hospitals in Tabriz, Ardabil, and other cities nearby took in many of the injured, residents and Iranian media said, and there were long queues of survivors waiting to be treated.

"I wanted to go there last night to help but heard there was bad traffic and that it wasn't safe enough," Ahmad said. "People in those villages need help."

Aidin, a Tabriz resident, said he went to give blood at a local hospital on Saturday and saw staff struggling to cope with the influx of patients. Most patients had been taken there by their families, he said, indicating a shortage of ambulances.

Ahar's 120-bed hospital was full, said Arash, a college student and resident of the town. There were traffic jams on the narrow road between Ahar and Tabriz as victims tried to reach hospitals, he said by telephone.

Villages destroyed

"People are scared and won't go back into their houses because they fear the buildings aren't safe."

The US Geological Survey measured Saturday's first quake at 6.4 magnitude and said it struck 60 km (37 miles) northeast of the city of Tabriz, a trading hub far from Iran's oil-producing areas and known nuclear facilities.

The second, measuring 6.3, struck 11 minutes later near Varzaghan, 49 km (30 miles) northeast of Tabriz.

More than 1,000 villages in the area were affected by the earthquakes, Ahmad Reza Shaji'i, a Red Crescent official, told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). About 130 villages suffered more than 70 percent damage, and 20 villages were completely destroyed, he said.

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