TEHRAN: Iranian rescue workers dug through rubble in a hunt for survivors on Monday after a major earthquake struck the Iran-Iraq border, killing at least 415 and injuring thousands.
The 7.3-magnitude quake hit a border area 30 kilometres southwest of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan at around 9:20 pm on Sunday. Many people would have been at home when the quake hit Iran’s western province of Kermanshah, where authorities said it killed at least 407 people and injured 6,700.
Across the border in Iraq, where the areas are more sparsely populated, the health ministry said eight people had died and several hundred been injured.
Some Iranians spent the night outdoors after fleeing their homes in the mountainous cross-border region, huddling around fires at dawn as the authorities deployed help to affected areas.
A woman and her baby were pulled out alive from the rubble in the Iranian town of Sar-e Pol-e Zaham, the worst hit in the quake, local media reported.
Officials said they were setting up relief camps but that access to the areas was not easy.
Iran’s emergency services chief Pir Hossein Koolivand said it was “difficult to send rescue teams to the villages because the roads have been cut off… there have been landslides”.
The official IRNA news agency said 30 Red Cross teams had been sent to the quake zone, parts of which had experienced power cuts.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the government and armed forces to mobilise “all their means” to help the population.
Local media reported hundreds of ambulances and dozens of army helicopters mobilised for rescue operations including in rural areas.
Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, an area of some 85,000 people close to the border, was the worst hit, with at least 236 dead, while the towns of Eslamabad and Qasr-e Shirin were also affected.
Some 259,000 people live in the areas around these towns, according to the latest population census.
State television footage showed tents, blankets, and food being distributed in areas hit by the quake.
At dawn on Monday in Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, buildings stood disfigured, their former facades lying in rubble on crumpled vehicles.
In an open space away from the wrecked housing blocks, men and women, some wrapped in blankets, huddled around a camp fire to keep warm.
In Iraq, the health ministry said the quake had killed seven people in the northern province of Sulaimaniyah and one in the province of Diyala to its south.
More than 500 people were injured in both provinces and the nearby province of Kirkuk.
Footage posted on Twitter showed panicked people fleeing a building in Sulaimaniyah, as windows shattered at the moment the quake struck, while images from the nearby town of Darbandikhan showed walls and concrete structures had collapsed.
In Darbandikhan, officials called on residents to sleep outside their homes as a precautionary measure. In Sulaimaniyah, residents ran out onto the streets and some damage to property was reported, an AFP reporter there said.
Rekot Rachid, health minister for the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, said that, in Sulaimaniyah, four people were killed in the town of Darbandikhan, two in Karmiyan and another in the provincial capital.
Residents flee homes in Turkey
The quake, which struck at a relatively shallow depth of 23 kilometres, was felt for about 20 seconds in Baghdad, and for longer in other provinces of Iraq, AFP journalists said.
Iraqi health authorities said they treated dozens of people in its aftermath, most for shock.
On the Iranian side of the border, the tremor shook several cities in the west of the country including Tabriz.
It was also felt in southeastern Turkey, an AFP correspondent said. In the town of Diyarbakir, residents were reported to have fled their homes.
The quake struck along a 1,500-kilometre fault line between the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates, a belt extending through western Iran and into northeastern Iraq.
The area sees frequent seismic activity.
In 1990, a 7.4-magnitude quake near the Caspian Sea in northern Iran killed 40,000 people and left 300,000 more injured and half a million homeless. Within seconds the quake reduced dozens of towns and nearly 2,000 villages to rubble.
Thirteen years later, a catastrophic quake struck the ancient southeast Iranian city of Bam, famed for its mud brick buildings, killing at least 31,000 people and flattening swathes of the city.
Since then, Iran has experienced at least two major quake disasters, one in 2005 that killed more than 600 and another in 2012 that left some 300 dead.
More recently, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake near Iran’s border with Turkmenistan in May killed two people, injured hundreds and caused widespread damage.