20,000 People Die in Earthquake in Bam, Iran

News Agencies
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BAM, Iran - governments around the world rushed hundreds of medical experts, rescue teams, water-purification systems - even tea - to Iran on Saturday to provide aid to the earthquake-ravaged country.

The scramble to dole out millions of dollars worth of aid and assistance was a harried first step for Bam, Iran, where officials say at least 20,000 people were killed and thousands more injured in the wake of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake Friday morning.

Two leading rescue officials said the final death toll from Friday's quake could be much higher. "As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000. An unbelievable human disaster has occurred," said Akbar Alavi, the governor of Kerman city, the local provincial capital.

"We need help, otherwise we will be pulling corpses, not the injured, out of the rubble," Brigadier Mohammadi, commander of the army in southeast Iran, told state television.

Jahanbakhsh Khanjani, a spokesman for Iran's Interior Ministry, said Saturday that Iran would accept aid from all countries of the world, aside from Israel. The announcement followed statements by foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, who reported that the Foreign Ministry had said that unofficial Israeli sources were considering sending aid to Iran. "The Islamic Republic of Iran accepts all kinds of humanitarian aid from all countries and international organizations with the exception of the Zionist regime [Israel]," Khanjani said.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who once branded Iran part of an "axis of evil" for allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction, and other world leaders rushed to offer whatever help they could to the Islamic Republic.

Washington has no official ties with Tehran, but Bush said in a statement: "We stand ready to help the people of Iran."

A spokesman for Bush said Washington would be offering humanitarian aid, and a U.S. official said the State Department would be announcing an aid package soon.

The quake struck when many people were still asleep in their homes.

About 70 per cent of Bam, a popular tourist spot some 1,000 km (600 miles) southeast of the capital Tehran with an historic citadel and other centuries-old buildings, was leveled.

Reuters witnesses in Bam said hundreds of corpses were bundled into trucks and the back seats of cars. Distraught relatives wailed next to bodies wrapped in blankets.

Many residents were feared trapped under the rubble and the city of 200,000 in Iran's Kerman province was without water, power or fuel as night temperatures headed below freezing. Some people accused the government of doing nothing to help them.

Survivors lit fires to stay warm in the open amid the mass of flattened mud-brick houses. Survivors using their bare hands joined search teams tearing at rubble.

"I have lost all my family. My parents, my grandmother and two sisters are under the rubble," said Maryam, 17.

One grief-stricken old woman, her face covered with dirt, just kept saying: "My child, my child."

The United Nations, European Union countries, Russia, China, Poland, Japan, Turkey and others also heeded Iran's appeals for help from the international community.

They pledged doctors, medical supplies, financial aid, and rescuers with sniffer dogs and equipment to locate survivors.

A 60-strong British rescue team with sniffer dogs, special cameras and listening devices left London on Friday night and was due to arrive in Kerman, near Bam, early on Saturday.

Rubble-strewn pavements were lined with injured, some on intravenous drips.

State media said two hospitals had collapsed, crushing many of the staff, and remaining hospitals were full. The injured were being ferried to neighboring towns.

Mechanized diggers hollowed out trenches where the dead were hastily buried without rites.

A large part of the ancient citadel was destroyed, Kerman province governor Mohammad Ali Karimi said. Dating back 2,000 years, it had sprawling fortifications, towers, buildings, stables and a mosque. It was the city's main tourist attraction.

"The city of Bam must be built from scratch," said its governor Ali Shafiee.

Houses in the date-growing area are traditionally made from mud-brick, making them vulnerable to earthquakes.

Bam is on the old Silk Road route between China and Europe used by merchants and travelers for centuries. It is a tourist spot with inns, a theological school and bazaars.

In Tehran, state television showed people queuing to give blood. Bakeries in Shiraz said they would make bread from dusk until dawn as their contribution to the aid effort.

Quakes are a regular occurrence in Iran, an oil-producing country crossed by major fault lines in the earth's structure.

In June last year, a tremor measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit northern Iran, killing at least 229 people and injuring more than 1,000.

Some 35,000 people were killed in 1990 when earthquakes of up to 7.7 on the Richter scale hit the northwest of Iran. Tehran was hit by a quake of about seven on the Richter scale in 1830.

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