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Expert: Tehran doomed if 'big one' hits

Much of Bam, devastated by the 6.6-magnitude earthquake, remained unsearched Monday.
Much of Bam, devastated by the 6.6-magnitude earthquake, remained unsearched Monday.

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TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- An earthquake that may one day strike Tehran could kill hundreds of thousands and destroy most of the buildings in the capital city of 12 million, a top Iranian scientist warned Monday .

Bahram Akasheh, professor of geophysics at Tehran University and a government adviser, said a quake as strong as the one that flattened the southeastern city of Bam could kill many times more than the 30,000 people who are feared dead there.

"The building codes are almost universally ignored in Iran and Tehran is especially vulnerable to quakes because there is a major fault line running across it," Akasheh told Reuters. "The ground conditions in parts of Tehran are unfavorable: too soft, too brittle and too dangerous to build on. Rules are ignored."

Northern Tehran is sitting on a major fault about 47 miles long and about 100 smaller fractures, Akasheh said.

He and other researchers estimate that a repeat of the last big quake to hit Tehran, which killed 45,000 in 1830, would today kill six percent of the capital's population.

"The destruction to Tehran would be immense. About 80 percent of the buildings would be damaged or destroyed. Tehran is not ready for a big one."

In 1830, most of the damage was to buildings up to 60 miles to the east of Tehran, which then had a population of just 10,000.

"All the villages were destroyed," Akasheh said. "And you must keep in mind there were only one-story buildings then. There was no big city. But everything was still destroyed."

The 1830 shock is thought to have measured seven on the Richter scale. The quake in Bam was 6.3.

The moderate Sharq newspaper said Sunday a million or more could die in a Tehran quake. It reported only five of the 32 fire stations are built to withstand a powerful earthquake.

Capital move recommended

In studies prepared for President Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Akasheh recommended moving the sprawling capital to a safer region further south.

Akasheh concluded that even if government building codes were enforced and ramshackle buildings reinforced or torn down, Tehran would still not be safe from a big tremor.

"Mr Khatami asked me to work on the issue and I recommended moving the capital. But apparently it is not possible. Pakistan and Brazil were able to do it. Why not here?"

Friday's quake shook a region with a population of 200,000. Officials warn the death toll, now at 25,000, could hit 30,000. Another 30,000 have been injured and 100,000 made homeless.

In 1990, some 35,000 were killed when earthquakes of up to 7.7 on the Richter scale hit the northwest of Iran.

Akasheh said there had not been a major quake in Bam in 2,000 years. "All of a sudden the first major earthquake in the city's history destroys Bam," he said.

He said there is daily seismic activity in Tehran and on average three to four identifiable tremors of up to three on the Richter scale -- every day. But there have only been two quakes as high as 4.5 in the last 100 years.

"I've forecast that there is the potential for an earthquake of between 7 and 8," he said, adding that a long term Japanese study of Tehran came to similar conclusions.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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