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Rescuers struggle to reach Iran quake victims

TEHRAN — Rescue workers used helicopters to access remote areas in northwestern Iran hit by twin earthquakes, and while the official death toll was Sunday lowered to 227, tens of thousands remained homeless and many had little or no medical care.

Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, who confirmed the death toll, said more than 1,380 people were injured. Najar, who traveled to the disaster area, said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ordered a special budget for reconstruction.

The quakes struck within 11 minutes of each other on Saturday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and officials said the towns of Ahar and Varzaqan were the worst hit.

Aftershocks have rocked the region since, and residents of several villages near Varzaqan said many people were still missing and believed to be under the debris.

A Red Crescent official told the ISNA news agency that more than 800 relief workers were involved in the emergency operation, and that they used helicopters to reach remote areas.

The affected areas have few medical facilities, and many of the injured being transferred to hospitals in the closest cities died en route.

The Red Crescent was trying to establish several mobile hospitals and also sending physicians to treat the injured in the field.

A pregnant woman from one of the quake-hit villages referred to a mobile hospital gave birth there, ISNA reported, and doctors said mother and child were in good health.

There were still unofficial reports that up to 300 people were killed in the quakes.

The Interior Ministry said 300 villages were hit, and an estimated 20 of them were totally devastated.

About 5,600 tents have been erected for 16,000 people who are believed to have either become homeless or are afraid to go back into their houses.

Another problem the survivors were facing was related to the burial of victims. Muslims must wash bodies before burial, but the lack of water was making this impossible.

The government was already looking ahead to long-term rebuilding efforts as in the winter, temperatures plummet below -20 degrees Celsius in Azerbaijan province.

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