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Volunteers Rush To Quake Zone Death Toll Still Climbing As Aftershocks Hit Iran

Convoys of buses, trucks and pickups rushed volunteers over narrow dirt roads Sunday to the remote mountains of northeastern Iran, where the death toll from a powerful earthquake reached 2,400 people - and was still climbing.

More than 155 aftershocks shook what was left standing, forcing tens of thousands of people to camp amid the rubble in the streets of stricken villages. Forty-thousand people were left homeless.

Military aircraft flew food, clothes and medicine to the area, and volunteers who arrived in convoys dug through the collapsed structures with their bare hands to look for bodies. Others handed out aid.

In most villages, the streets had been transformed into rows of rubble. Survivors beat their chests and wailed in anguish. Others washed the bodies of their loved ones and buried them in mass graves.

At least 6,000 people were injured in the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that struck Saturday near the town of Qaen, 70 miles west of the Afghan border.

Most of the damage was in the 60-mile stretch between Birjand and Qaen, a region dotted by poor villages and mud huts. In one of the villages, an elementary school collapsed, killing 110 girls and burying their bodies under jagged slabs of concrete and steel.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency said at least 2,000 people died in villages around Qaen, 394 in Birjand and two in Khavaf.

RNA said there was also considerable damage in neighboring Afghanistan. In the Afghan capital of Kabul, international aid workers said at least four teams had set out to assess the wreckage in remote western Afghanistan. The workers, who spoke on condition they not be identified by organization or name, knew of only five fatalities in Afghanistan.

Iranian officials estimated the damage at $67 million and appealed for international aid. From Tokyo, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged other countries “to respond promptly and with generosity.”

France sent a cargo plane carrying 39 tons of blankets, tents, clothes and food Sunday. Switzerland sent a rescue team and trained dogs to help search for survivors, although Iran turned down an offer of a larger contingent.

In Washington, presidential spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said the United States customarily would send any aid through an organization like the Red Cross.

“I believe that despite our differences with Iran - which are considerable and very, very strong - this will be viewed as a humanitarian issue,” Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN.

The Iranian Red Crescent sent 9,000 tents, more than 18,000 blankets and canned food, rice and dates.

Iran also rushed at least 80 tons of aid to the region aboard four U.S.-made C-130 planes and six helicopters, presumably to the provincial capital of Mashhad. From there, it is still a five-hour drive over rough terrain to the stricken villages.

In the villages, temperatures dropped to 41 degrees overnight, but then soared to 84 in the day, raising concern that bodies under the rubble might begin to rot and spread disease.

xxxx DEADLIEST EARTHQUAKES Even before Saturday’s 7.1 earthquake, Iran has been the scene of some of the 20th century’s worst quakes. A list of the 10 deadliest quakes follows, with location, date, magnitude and number killed. Tangshan, China, July 28, 1976, 7.8 to 8.2, official death toll: 242,000. Unofficial estimates: as many as 800,000. China, May 22, 1927, 8.3, 200,000. China, Dec. 16, 1920, 8.6, 100,000. Japan, Sept. 1, 1923, 8.3, 100,000. Iran, June 21, 1990, 7.3 to 7.7, 50,000. Chile, Jan. 24, 1939, 8.3, 28,000. Iran, Sept. 16, 1978, 7.7, 25,000. Armenia, Dec. 7, 1988, 6.9, 25,000. Guatemala, Feb. 4, 1976, 7.5, 22,778. Chila, Aug. 16, 1906, 8.6, 20,000.