Overcrowded hospitals in northwest Iran are struggling to cope with thousands of earthquake victims and rescuers raced to reach remote villages after two powerful quakes killed nearly 300 people.
Thousands huddled in makeshift camps or slept in the street after the quakes on Saturday (local time) in fear of more aftershocks, 60 of which had already struck. A lack of tents and other supplies left them exposed to the night chill, one witness told Reuters.
"I saw some people whose entire home was destroyed, and all their livestock killed," Tahir Sadati, a local photographer, said by telephone. "People need help, they need warm clothes, more tents, blankets and bread."
The worst damage and most casualties appeared to have been in rural villages around the towns of Ahar, Varzaghan and Harees, near the major city of Tabriz, Iranian media reported.
Tabriz resident Ahmad, 41, said his cousin living in a village near Ahar was killed and that his body had already been found.
"Nobody knows what happened to his wife and two daughters," aged 4 and 7, Ahmad said. "We fear that if rescuers don't get to them soon, they will lose their lives too if they're still alive."
But Iranian officials said rescue operations had ended by Sunday afternoon (local time) and that all those trapped beneath the rubble had been freed, Iran's English-language Press TV reported.
Many villages are hard to reach by road, hindering rescue efforts. Hospitals in Tabriz, Ardabil and other cities nearby took in many of the injured, residents and Iranian media said, and there were long queues of survivors waiting to be treated.
"I wanted to go there last night to help but heard there was bad traffic and that it wasn't safe enough," Ahmad said. "People in those villages need help."
Aidin, a Tabriz resident, said he went to give blood at a local hospital on Saturday and saw staff struggling to cope with the influx of patients. Most patients had been taken there by their families, he said, indicating a shortage of ambulances.
Ahar's 120-bed hospital was full, said Arash, a college student and resident of the town. There were traffic jams on the narrow road between Ahar and Tabriz as victims tried to reach hospitals, he said by telephone.
The US Geological Survey measured Saturday's first quake at 6.4 magnitude and said it struck 60 km northeast of the city of Tabriz, a trading hub far from Iran's oil-producing areas and known nuclear facilities.
The second, measuring 6.3, struck 11 minutes later near Varzaghan, 49 km northeast of Tabriz.
More than 1000 villages in the area were affected by the earthquakes, Ahmad Reza Shaji'i, a Red Crescent official, told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). About 130 villages suffered more than 70 percent damage, and 20 villages were completely destroyed, he said.
"We saw some villages that were truly destroyed," said Sadati, the photographer who was documenting the quake aftermath. "One good thing was that the earthquake happened during the day, so many people were not in their homes. If it had happened at night the casualties would have been far worse."