International specialist rescue workers, among them Germans, have reached the quake site in Iran to search for survivors. Iranian authorities say the death toll could be much higher than 20,000.
Iranian relief workers shovel earth on the bodies of people covered in blankets in a mass grave.
Earthquake specialists from Germany’s THW federal disaster relief agency together with workers from other aid organizations have begun to look for survivors in the historic city of Bam in southeastern Iran after a massive earthquake on Friday flattened the town. The team managed to extricate 20 persons alive from the rubble on Saturday.
Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari said on Saturday that the death toll was expected to be much higher than the earlier figure of 20,000. "We believe that the extent of the catastrophe is far greater and the number of victims much higher than was earlier announced," Lari said on state radio.
Iranian Health Minister Massud Peseschkian told news agency AFP that about 70,000 people in Bam alone had been killed or injured.
President Mohammad Khatami has admitted Iran cannot cope on its own. The official IRNA news agency quoted Iran's Interior Ministry as saying assistance would be welcome from every corner of the globe other than Israel.
International rescue teams arrive in Bam
A THW spokesperson confirmed that 30 specialists had already begun with rescue work in Bam after probing the situation in the crisis zone. The team is equipped with sniffer dogs and technical equipment to help detect any remaining survivors, who may still be trapped under the debris.
earthquake victims in Iran
The members of the so-called rapid action rescue force of the THW along with members of the German Red Cross, Malteser Hilfsdienst (the Ambulance Corps of the Order of Malta) and the German Rescue Dogs Organization landed at the airport of Kerman, 300 kilometers from Bam, on early Saturday morning. They were flown to Bam by Iranian military aircraft.
Apart from German rescue teams, aid workers from Russia and Britain also landed in the region on Saturaday. The United Nations, European Union countries, Russia, China, Poland, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Australia and others have pledged doctors, medical supplies, financial aid and rescuers with sniffer dogs and equipment to help find survivors.
EU pledges 800,000 euros
The European Union too has sprung into action. As head of the EU presidency, Italy has taken charge of overseeing the mobilization of aid.
Agostino Miozzo, the official coordinating EU aid, said France was sending a field hospital and the Czech Republic, one of 10 countries entering the bloc next year, also offered help.
"This is the first time EU coordination is taking place for a disaster," Miozzo said. The EU Commission said it would mobilise 800,000 euros ($995,100) of initial humanitarian emergency aid.
A Belgian C-130 military transport plane was due to bring vehicles, water, blankets and food on Saturday and Belgium also offered a field hospital and medical crew.
German Foreign Ministry Promises 500,000 euros
On Friday Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Interior Minister Otto Schily have all offered the Iranian government whatever help Germany can provide. The Foreign Ministry has also pulled together its disaster relief staff. And German aid organizations have sent out calls for donations.
The German Foreign Ministry also announced on Saturday that it was donating €500,000 to Iran to help cope with the tragedy and hinted that it might raise the amount in the coming days. The ministry also said that a chartered plane carrying 28 tons of aid packets including mainly medical supplies and drinking water, would leave for Iran on Saturday evening.
Tens of thousands now homeless
The destruction of the historic fortress of Bam
Iranian television said the earthquake measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and occurred at 3 a.m. in southeastern Iran and caught many people unawares in their sleep.
The epicenter was located in Bam, a medieval city with a population of 80,000 that lies about 1,000 kilometers southeast of the capital city of Tehran. The quake has left the city devastated. With as many as 70 percent of the city’s homes destroyed, countless people have been left homeless.
The head of the Iranian relief organization Red Crescent said as many as 40,000 families have been affected by the earthquake, which authorities now believe is the country’s worst since 1990, when 35,000 people died in Iran’s biggest-ever quake.
News agency reports said Bam’s cemeteries were crammed with fully-clothed corpses and a stench of death was beginning to pervade the streets.