Iran hunts for quake survivors

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Rescue personnel work in Iran’s Kermanshah province yesterday. ISNA/AFP

TEHRAN (Agencies) – Iranian rescue workers dug through rubble in a hunt for survivors yesterday after a major earthquake struck the Iran-Iraq border, killing more than 300 people and injuring thousands.

The 7.3-magnitude quake rocked a border area 30 kilometres southwest of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan at around 9.20pm on Sunday (4.20am yesterday, Cambodia time), when many people would have been at home, the US Geological Survey said.

The worst affected areas were in Iran’s western province of Kermanshah. State television said more than 348 people were killed in Iran and at least 6,600 were injured. Local officials said the death toll would rise as search and rescue teams reached remote areas of Iran..

Across the border in Iraq, in more sparsely populated areas, the health ministry said eight people had died and several hundred were injured.

Some Iranians spent the night outdoors after fleeing their homes in the mountainous cross-border region, huddling around fires at dawn as the authorities deployed help to affected areas.

A woman and her baby were pulled alive from the rubble in the Iranian town of Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, the worst hit in the quake, local media reported.

Officials said they were setting up relief camps but that access to the affected areas was not easy.

Iran’s emergency services chief Pir Hossein Koolivand said it was “difficult to send rescue teams to the villages because the roads have been cut off… there have been landslides”.

The official Irna news agency said 30 Red Crescent teams had been sent to the quake zone, parts of which had experienced power cuts. The head of Iranian Red Crescent said more than 70,000 people were in need of emergency shelter.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the government and armed forces to mobilise “all their means” to help.

Local media reported hundreds of ambulances and dozens of army helicopters mobilised for rescue operations including in rural areas.

After initially pinning the quake’s epicentre inside Iraq, the USGS then placed it across the border in
Iran yesterday.

Iran’s Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, home to some 85,000 people close to the border, was the worst hit with at least 236 dead, while the towns of Eslamabad and Qasr-e Shirin were also affected.

Hojjat Gharibian was one of hundreds of homeless Iranian survivors, who was huddled against the cold with his family in Qasr-e Shirin.

“My two children were sleeping when the house started to collapse because of the quake. I took them and ran to the street. We spent hours in the street until aid workers moved us into a school building,” Mr Gharibian said.

State television showed tents, blankets and food being distributed in areas hit by the quake.

In Iraq, the health ministry said the quake had killed seven people in the northern province of Sulaimaniyah and one in Diyala province to its south. More than 500 people were injured in both provinces and the nearby province of Kirkuk.

Footage posted on Twitter showed panicked people fleeing a building in Sulaimaniyah, as windows shattered at the moment the quake struck, while images from the nearby town of Darbandikhan showed walls and concrete structures that had collapsed.

In Darbandikhan, where four people were killed, officials called on residents to sleep outside as a precautionary measure.

Nizar Abdullah spent the night with neighbours sifting through the ruins of a two-storey home next door after it crumbled into concrete debris.

“There were eight people inside,” the 34-year-old Iraqi Kurd said. Some family members managed to escape, but “neighbours and rescue workers pulled out the mother and one of the children dead from the rubble”.

The quake, which struck at a relatively shallow depth of 23 kilometres, was felt for about 20 seconds in Baghdad, and for longer in other provinces of Iraq, journalists said.

“I was sitting with my kids having dinner and suddenly the building was just dancing in the air,” said Majida Ameer, who ran out of her building in the capital’s Salihiya district with her three children. “I thought at first that it was a huge bomb. But then I heard everyone around me screaming: ‘Earthquake!’”

It was also felt in southeastern Turkey, a correspondent said.

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