An Iranian medic attends to an injured woman outside a hospital in the town… (Kamel Rouhi, AFP/Getty…)
TEHRAN –- More than 180 people were reported killed and 1,300 injured Saturday when twin earthquakes struck mountainous northwestern Iran, sending entire villages crashing to the ground.
The earthquakes, one of them measuring magnitude 6.4, struck the sparsely populated region Saturday afternoon, and as rescue efforts continued through the night, some officials said the number of dead could rise markedly.
Naser Zagar, who heads the coroner's office in the town of Ahar, near the epicenter, told Iran's official news agency IRNA that 35 people had been killed there and that the toll could rise to 40 times that number.
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Four villages near Ahar were destroyed and 60 suffered heavy damage, an official in the region, Reza Sadighi, told IRNA.
"The casualties in Ahar and its villages are high. The officials should send as quickly as possible: first aid, medicine, tents and ambulances and rescue teams," lawmaker Abbas Falahi Baei, who represents Ahar and another earthquake-stricken town, Haris, told the Fars News Agency.
The affected towns and villages are high in the mountains, making the rescue more challenging but possibly limiting the death toll because the area is not heavily populated.
"The jolt was strong. We rushed outdoors and into the streets in a panic," said one resident in the city of Tabriz, an hour southwest of Ahar.
Residents in areas even five hours away felt the shaking.
Iran has a history of deadly earthquakes. In 2003, more than 25,000 people were killed when a magnitude 6.6 quake struck the southeast part of the country.
On Saturday, the roads from Tabriz to the northern towns were jammed with people trying to help deliver medicine and blankets.
But there was early criticism of the government's response, even as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Cabinet members sent their official condolences to the people of East Azerbaijan province.
Turkish separatists in the province called an opposition TV station and criticized the "slow pace of help to quake-stricken areas."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.