Dubai: 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.
Thousands huddled in make-shift camps or slept in the streets after Saturday's quakes in fear of more aftershocks, 40 of which have already struck.
Casualty figures are expected to rise, Iranian officials said, as some of the injured were in critical condition while others were still trapped under the rubble inaccessible to rescue workers hampered by darkness in the first hours after the quakes.
Six villages were destroyed and about 60 sustained more than 50 per cent damage, Iranian media reported. A bout 110 villages were damaged in the quakes, Deputy Interior Minister Hassan Ghadami was quoted by Fars as saying.
Photographs posted on Iranian news websites showed numerous bodies, including children, lying on the floor of a white-tiled morgue in the town of Ahar and medical staff treating the injured in the open air as dusk fell.
Other images showed massive destruction wrought by the earthquakes and rescue workers digging people out of the rubble, some alive, many dead. Iran is situated on major fault lines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 that reduced the historic southeastern city of Bam to dust and killed more than 25,000 people.
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 at a depth of 9.9 km (6.2 miles).
A second quake measuring 6.3 struck 49 km (30 miles) northeast of Tabriz 11 minutes later at a similar depth.
Ghadami said 250 people had been killed and about 1,800 injured, Fars reported.
A local emergency official told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) that about 2,000 people were believed to be injured. The second quake struck near the town of Varzaghan. "The quake was so intense that people poured into the streets through fear," said the news agency Fars.
Hundreds of people were rescued from under the rubble of collapsed buildings but nightfall severely disrupted emergency efforts. "Unfortunately there are still a number of people trapped in the rubble but finding them is very difficult because of the darkness," Fars quoted the national emergency head Gholam Reza Masoumi as saying.
IRNA quoted Bahram Samadirad, a provincial official from the coroner's office, as saying: "Since some people are in a critical condition ... it is possible for the number of casualties to rise."
Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar has arrived in the area and was holding meetings with local officials meant to coordinate the emergency response, ISNA reported.
The hospital in Varzaghan, staffed by just two doctors and with shortages of medical supplies and food, was struggling to cope with about 500 injured, the Mehr news agency reported.
The earthquakes struck in East Azerbaijan province, a mountainous region that neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north and is predominantly populated by ethnic Azeris - a significant minority in Iran. Its capital, Tabriz, is a major city and trading hub far from Iran's oil-producing areas and known nuclear facilities.
Buildings there are substantially built and the Iranian Students' News Agency said nobody in the city had been killed or hurt.