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Help too late, say quake survivors

Ministerial visit
Iran's Interior Minister visits the scene of the devastation  

TEHRAN, Iran -- Survivors of a powerful earthquake in northern Iran threw stones at a government minister's convoy, saying rescue teams came too late to save scores of villagers buried alive in the rubble.

Thousands of Iranians spent a second night outdoors in near-freezing temperatures on Sunday after entire villages were demolished by the quake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.

The earthquake struck early on Saturday killing at least 222 people, most of them women, children and the elderly while men were working in the fields and vineyards.

The Red Crescent revised the death toll down from an earlier estimate of 500 people, saying some of the injured had been mistakenly counted among the dead.

But residents in the mountainous province of Qazvin, epicentre of the earthquake, said they believed the death toll was much higher.

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Qazvin's governor said his office had already issued 500 burial permits.

Angry survivors in Avaj, a town of 3,600 people which suffered the heaviest casualties, pelted Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari's convoy with stones, accusing authorities of failing to respond in time to save victims trapped in the wreckage of their homes.

"My child died and the local people helped me to bring him out of the rubble. Only local people are helping," a man in Avaj, some 200 kilometres (130 miles) west of the capital Tehran, told Reuters.

The town's residents complained no tents had yet been set up and they were still waiting for food and medicine.

Hungry and cold, they gathered in open spaces as night fell and after at least 12 aftershocks rocked the region, causing panic and inflicting more damage to creaking buildings.

Police and soldiers scoured mounds of debris on Sunday, but made little progress finding survivors. A Red Crescent official said hopes were dwindling that any one else would be pulled out alive.

Emergency services were struggling to treat at least 1,500 injured people and spraying disinfectant to try to halt the spread of disease in soaring daytime temperatures. Some 5,000 homes were destroyed, leaving 25,000 people homeless.

U.S. President George W. Bush extended an offer of humanitarian aid to Iran, reaching out to a country he has branded part of an "axis of evil."

A Changooreh villager contemplates the future after the deadly 'quake  

"Human suffering knows no political boundaries," Bush said in a statement. "We stand ready to assist the people of Iran as needed and as desired."

But Mousavi-Lari stopped short of accepting Bush's offer and instead said Tehran would accept humanitarian aid from U.S. non-governmental organisations.

Earthquakes are a regular occurrence in Iran, which is crossed by several major fault lines. In 1997, a tremor measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale killed 1,560 people in eastern Iran near the Afghan border.

Qazvin, like Tehran, sits in the foothills of the Alborz mountain range along the south coast of the Caspian Sea. Experts say earthquakes here are infrequent, but that means pressure in the fault lines builds up, giving them extra force.




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