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Iran cuts quake rescue efforts

A Chinese rescue team searches for survivors in Bam Sunday.
A Chinese rescue team searches for survivors in Bam Sunday.

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Rescuers say the chances are slim for finding more survivors of Iran's earthquake. CNN's Matthew Chance (December 28)
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BAM, Iran (CNN) -- Iran is scaling down its search and rescue efforts for survivors from Friday's earthquake as government officials place the death toll in the ancient city of Bam as high as 20,000.

Iran's Minister of the Interior, the director of the Iranian Red Crescent, a local emergency coordinator and other authorities have determined that search-and-rescue teams from 16 countries were no longer needed, and that the search-and-rescue phase of the operation would end Sunday.

And a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team in Bam and Kerman reported Sunday that the disaster is confined to Bam and its surroundings.

"As of 28 December, the number of casualties is still unclear," it said. But water and electricity had been restored to "major parts" of the city.

The U.N. agency said there were critical shortages of medicines, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, stoves, blankets and food.

The process of counting the dead from the disaster has been "wildly chaotic," one observer said Sunday.

The Interior Ministry said at least 20,000 had died, while state television reported the confirmed toll at 14,000. The Department of Natural Disasters would only confirm that 7,000 people had been killed.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari told reporters that more than 15,000 bodies had already been buried.

At least 21 nations have sent or are sending aid, said Madeline Moulin from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid. Dozens of non-governmental organizations also were helping.

Planes delivering supplies and personnel are converging on the airport in Kerman, the provincial capital, where they are unloaded for the 200 kilometer (120 mile) drive to Bam.

The United States -- which has brushed off frosty relations and a branding of Iran as part of President Bush's "axis of evil" -- is sending military plane loads of rescue resources and equipment.

According to CNN's Ryan Chilcote, about 12 American planes -- including two U.S. military C-130 transport plan -- landed in Kerman's airport Sunday, carrying the first of more than 200 personnel and over 150,000 pounds of medical supplies.

They were the first U.S. military flights into Iran since an elite force tried to rescue U.S. hostages there in April 1980. (Full story)

A Japanese medical team also arrived at the normally quiet airport as were French rescuers with specially trained dogs. Chilcote said the airport was serving as a makeshift hospital, and injured Iranians were flown from there to hospitals around the country.

Iran has said it would not accept assistance from Israel. Nevertheless, non-governmental organizations within Israel are working to help provide relief.

As the full horror of the quake unfolds, critics have begun lambasting the Iranian government over its handling of the tragedy.

Reformist newspapers in Iran said the government was ill-prepared and blamed it for leaving Iranians living in fragile homes with no reinforcements.

An Iranian relief worker distributes tents to quake survivors in Bam on Sunday.
An Iranian relief worker distributes tents to quake survivors in Bam on Sunday.

Structural engineer Mohammad Ehsani told CNN, "The technology is there to construct earthquake-protected structures. Though he said the cost of building an earthquake-resistant structure is not significantly higher than ordinary construction, "In many countries in that region, including Iran, these codes are not followed."

Even new construction does not follow building codes, he said. A similar earthquake in the capital city of Tehran "would be quite tragic."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has also been admonished for not visiting the earthquake site.

His justification for not having visited the stricken city was vague. "It was not possible for me to make this trip because I was advised not to do so," he said. "But I will make this trip soon."

Iran began three days of mourning Friday.

About 80 percent of the city's buildings were likely destroyed in the quake, including two hospitals.

Bam was a popular tourist attraction because of its 2,000-year-old citadel, which was on the register of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and has been a World Heritage site.

-- CNN's Matthew Chance and journalist Shirzad Bozoghmehr contributed to this article.

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