DUBAI: Two powerful earthquakes killed 250 people and injured about 2,000 in northwest Iran where rescuers frantically combed the rubble of dozens of villages through the night into Sunday.
Thousands fled their homes in panic, and stayed overnight in makeshift camps or in the streets after Saturday's quakes and about 40 aftershocks hit the area.
Casualty figures are expected to rise, Iranian officials said, as some of the injured were in a critical condition while others were still trapped under the rubble in inaccessible places and rescue efforts were hampered by the darkness.
Six villages were destroyed and about 60 sustained more than 50 per cent damage, Iranian media reported.
Photographs posted on Iranian news websites showed numerous bodies lying on the floor of a white-tiled morgue in the town of Ahar, and medical staff, surrounded by anxious residents, treating the injured in the open air as dusk fell.
Other images showed collapsed buildings and cars crushed by rubble.
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 southeastern historic city of Bam into 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 northeast of the city of Tabriz at a depth of 9.9 km.
A second quake measuring 6.3 struck 49 km northeast of Tabriz 11 minutes later at a similar depth.
At least 250 people died and more than 2,000 were injured by twin earthquakes that hit the Tabriz region in northwest Iran on Saturday, an official said.
Khalil Saie, the head of the regional natural disasters centre, was quoted by the ISNA news agency giving that toll.
Hundreds of people were rescued from under the rubble of collapsed buildings but the night-time 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,” national emergency head Gholam Reza Masoumi was quoted as saying by Fars.
The state news agency 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.”
The hospital in Varzaghan, staffed by just two doctors and with a shortages of medical supplies and food, was struggling to cope with about 500 injured, the Mehr news agency reported.
“I was just on the phone talking to my mother when she said, 'There’s just been an earthquake’, then the line was cut,” one woman from Tabriz, who lives outside Iran, wrote on Facebook.
“God, what has happened? After that I couldn’t get through. God has also given me a slap, and it was very hard.”
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 in the city are substantially built, and the Iranian Students’ News Agency said nobody in the city had been killed or hurt.
Homes and business premises in Iranian villages, however, are often made of concrete blocks or mud brick that can crumble and collapse in a strong quake.
Red Crescent official Mahmoud Mozafar was quoted by Mehr news agency as saying about 16,000 people in the quake-hit area had been given emergency shelter.
Iranian health minister Marzieh Vahid Dastejerdi said the government had despatched 48 ambulances and 500 blood bags to the worst affected areas, IRNA reported.
Fars quoted Iranian lawmaker Abbas Falahi as saying he believed rescue workers had not yet been able to reach between 10 and 20 villages. Falahi said people in the region were in need of bread, tents and drinking water.
A local provincial official warned of more aftershocks over the next 48 hours and urged people in the area to stay outdoors.
The Turkish Red Crescent said it was sending a truck full of emergency supplies to the border. Turkey's Foreign Ministry said it had informed Iran it was ready to help.