TEHRAN – Rescuers were digging through the rubble in a frantic search for survivors after a powerful earthquake rocked a border region between Iran and Iraq killing more than 400 people and leaving thousands injured.
The Iranian provinces of Kermanshah and Illam were reported to be the worst hit in the 7.3-magnitude quake, which struck late Sunday.
The earthquake’s epicentre was in a remote mountainous region of Iraq, some 200 kilometres north-east of Baghdad and 400 kilometres west of Iranian capital Tehran, according to the US Geological Survey.
Many families spent the night outdoors as 140 aftershocks rocked the area several hours after the first tremblor, state media said.
As night fell on the region, state media reported that the death toll had crossed 400. While Press TV put the fatalities at 450, with more than 7,100 injured, the Tasnim news agency reported that 445 people were killed.
The highest casualties were reported from the town of Sarpol-e Zahab, in Kermanshah province, which has declared three days of mourning, state media said.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on all officials to ensure that aid was rushed to the region and for the armed forces to be deployed for search and rescue operations.
Earlier in the day, Iran’s Interior Ministry reported 348 dead and 6,600 people injured.
Eight people were killed and 535 injured in northern Iraq, Health Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr said.
Seven of those killed in Iraq were in the northern region of Kurdistan and one was killed in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, he added.
It took emergency services in Kermanshah eight hours before they could properly begin their rescue mission when day broke on Monday.
Witnesses said hospitals in the province were overwhelmed by the casualties.
The Health Ministry in Tehran said it had sent more than 100 doctors to the affected region. Victims with serious injuries were being sent to the Iranian capital for treatment.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is set to visit the affected areas on Tuesday. He promised victims all the necessary support on Monday and said earthquake relief had been made the highest priority across all government ministries.
In the Vatican, Pope Francis offered his solidarity to the victims and “divine blessings of consolation and strength” to the rescue workers.
Iran is crossed by major fault lines and prone to powerful earthquakes. In 2003, 26,000 people were killed following an earthquake in the historic city of Bam, in south-eastern Iran. In 1990, 35,000 people died after a 7.4-magnitude quake in Rudbar, in Iran’s northern Gilan province.
Seismologists say the Arabian tectonic plate was responsible for the latest earthquake as it presses against the Eurasian plate.
“The region is tectonically speaking very complex and active, with various tectonic plates moving against each other,” said professor Marco of the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said it would send a plane to Sulaimaniya carrying 12 tons of emergency aid, including tents, blankets, personal hygiene and cooking kits, and was considering financial aid to Iran via the Iranian Red Crescent.
In Iraq, local authorities in the Kurdish cities of Sulaimaniya and Halabja gave employees the day off on Monday, after hundreds of houses were destroyed across the region. Most of the houses damaged were in Kurdistan’s eastern town of Darbandikhan, where four people have died.
The first aid convoy from the Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD, Turkey’s national disaster management agency, has arrived in northern Iraq. Thousands of tents, blankets and additional emergency kits were being moved in by land and air, along with search and rescue teams.
The Turkish aid comes despite tensions between the Iraqi Kurdish region and Ankara over a recent independence referendum in northern Iraq. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim expressed “deep sadness” over the quake as he confirmed help was being deployed.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told broadcaster NTV the country was also ready to offer assistance to Iran if needed. Turkey has dealt with a number of serious earthquakes in recent decades. -dpa