Four hundred die as powerful earthquake strikes central Iran

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The Independent Online

A powerful earthquake flattened a string of villages across central Iran yesterday, killing up to 400 people, injuring hundreds and leaving thousands homeless amid bitter rain.

A powerful earthquake flattened a string of villages across central Iran yesterday, killing up to 400 people, injuring hundreds and leaving thousands homeless amid bitter rain.

"I was asleep this morning and when I got up the walls collapsed," said Daud Walayat-e Faraq, an Afghan labourer in Zerand, who took his brother to hospital in Kerman. Five members of his family were killed in the earthquake. In another ward, a small child lay on a bed, his face badly bruised and heavily bandaged.

Kerman, the provincial capital 50 miles from Zerand, is the centre of relief operations. Other survivors sat on beds nearby in shock. Patients were wheeled through the wards. The head nurse said 235 patients had been treated at the hospital that day, of whom 70 had already had surgery. She said the number would probably rise.

"In the villages it is very difficult to find out how many people are buried under their houses," said Aydin Hami, a Unicef rescue worker who had spent the day in the stricken area. "In the city, the damage is not so bad; just a few streets have been badly affected."

State television has shown screaming people next to the crumbled remains of their mud-brick houses, shaking with shock. Other survivors hugged each other as they wept. Television also showed rescue workers struggling to dig through the red rubble. Large yellow diggers and military vehicles could be seen working to clear earth. Survivors abandoned homes which had escaped the first shock amid fears of another quake as aftershocks shook the region. Zerand last suffered a lethal earthquake in 1978.

The picture was still confused last night because the remoteness of the area and its mountainous terrain made it hard for rescuers to accurately estimate the scale of the crisis and bring in appropriate aid. But military helicopters had circled the area for much of the day assessing the damage. Roads to the Dahuyyeh and Rudkan villages were blocked by fallen boulders.

"Now the search-and-rescue operation is finishing but we are just beginning with the relief operation," Farshid Towfighi, deputy head of operations for the Iranian Red Crescent Society, told The Independent aboard a relief plane loaded with tents and food. "We have evacuated the injured to other towns and the need for treatment in the field is reducing."

State television also showed traffic-jammed roads, caused by people ferrying the injured to hospital and rushing in tents, blankets and food for survivors. The relief effort was also hampered by rainstorms racking the province, further slowing traffic and lowering the temperature. Winter nights in Kerman are bitter, reducing the chances of survival for any still under the rubble and condemning survivors to extreme discomfort. "The main problem has been heavy rain rather than cold," Mr Towfighi said. "It has been an obstacle for relief and helicopter surveillance flights, and could also increase the chance of hypothermia."

Iran's emergency services have a strong reputation for immediate disaster relief, partly because of the experience they have gained from the many earthquakes to hit the country. Iran has one of the highest levels of seismic activity in the world, with a small tremor almost every day.

The Iranian Red Crescent Society mobilised teams of trained volunteers from neighbouring provinces and brought them by bus to the stricken area to sift the rubble for survivors. Many volunteers are drawn from universities and include many medical students. Flights from Tehran brought in more medical and humanitarian supplies and teams of highly trained Red Crescent workers.

Private Iranians also donate large amounts of food, blankets and clothing. After the Bam quake, hundreds of private charities were set up in the city by citizens, housing associations and religious organisations. Bam was almost razed by the 26 December 2003 quake, which killed more than 30,000, and much of it is still rubble. President Mohammed Khatami said much of the promised aid money had not been delivered.