Iran said that more than 250 people have been killed and thousands were wounded or missing in two powerful earthquakes Saturday that hit the northwestern area of the country, far from underground nuclear sites.
"According to the latest reports, 250 people have been killed and more than 1,800 others have been injured by the two earthquakes which shook the East Azerbaijan province yesterday," Iran's Deputy Interior Minister Hassan Qaddami told the State-controlled Fars News Agency.
Local officials said at least a dozen villages were destroyed.
Casualty figures are expected to rise, Iranian officials said, as some of the injured were in critical condition while others were still trapped under the rubble inaccessible to rescue workers, who were hampered by darkness in the first hours after the quakes, Reuters reported.
An earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale jolted Ahar in East Azerbaijan province Saturday afternoon, and an hour later, another quake with magnitude 6 on the Richter scale jolted Varzaqan in the same province.
"We were in our home on the sixth floor when the earthquake struck," said Massood, a Tabriz resident who spoke to Reuters by phone. "It took a very long time. For about 40, 45 seconds everything was shaking and we were ready for the building to collapse, but nothing happened."
Thousands of people were forced to remain outdoors as at least 35 aftershocks rocked the area.
Iran sits astride several major faults in the earth's crust, and is prone to frequent earthquakes, an average of one a day.
However, many earthquakes have been devastating, such as the 2003 disaster that killed 31,000 people.
The deadliest quake in the country was in June 1990 and measured 7.7 on the Richter scale. About 37,000 people were killed and more than 100,000 injured in the northwestern provinces of Gilan and Zanjan.