Iranian residents and rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble of a house in a village, near the town of Varzaqan, Iran. AFP Photo
Iran on Sunday wrapped up rescue operation in hundreds of villages flattened by twin earthquakes the day before in its northwest, as officials gave a new toll of 227 dead and 1,380 injured in the disaster.
"Search and rescue operations have ended and we are now working to ensure survivors' needs in terms of shelter and food," interior minister Moustafa Mohammad-Najjar told state television.
He conveyed the new toll, lower and more precise than one given earlier by his ministry, as local officials verified information gathered in the hectic first hours after the two quakes hit on Saturday.
The first of the earthquakes registered a strong 6.4 on the moment magnitude scale, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity worldwide.
The second, almost as strong at 6.3 on the scale, rumbled through just 11 minutes later.
While the biggest city in the region, Tabriz, and nearby towns escaped with only relatively minor damage, scores of outlying villages made of more flimsy mud and concrete bricks were decimated.
Mohammad-Najjar said around half the 600 villages located in the zone were damaged or destroyed.
He said that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had given orders today for home reconstruction to begin immediately because of the harsh winter the region will experience at the end of the year.
An estimated 16,000 people were left homeless by the quakes. Red Crescent trucks carrying thousands of tents were seen plying the roads in the area that were still congested with ambulances and other emergency vehicles.
The rapid rescue operation highlighted the fact that in the villages residents knew each other well and knew where to look, and collapsed buildings were small.
But still there were many stories of tragedy.
Zeinab, a 13-year-old girl seen outside a Red Crescent tent in the village of Mirza Ali Kandi told AFP how she saw her eight-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister die before her eyes.
"I was outside my home playing when it (the first quake) happened. I ran inside looking for my brother and found him under a big pile of rubble. I tried to get him out. And then I heard my sister cry out and I turned and she has a big stone in her head, and I ran out," she said, sobbing.
"I wish it had been me, too, I wish I hadn't run out," she yelled, prompting her uncle to try to console her.
Others were more fortunate, she said.