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Iran: Quake Efforts Turn To Relief Rather Than Rescue

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

As hopes fade of finding more survivors from the 26 December earthquake in southeastern Iran, aid efforts are changing focus from rescue to relief operations. Officials say the death toll now stands at around 20,000, with 30,000 estimated injured and tens of thousands left homeless.

Prague, 29 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Rescuers struggling to dig survivors from the mounds of debris that once were the city of Bam say that today probably represents their last chance of finding anyone alive.

The desperate race to locate and free people trapped beneath their own homes and other buildings is now in its fourth day -- a fourth day that follows three nights of nearly freezing temperatures.

Correspondents say the homeless swarming over what had once been a city of some 90,000 people are struggling to keep warm at night by burning anything that can give off a faint heat, even cardboard. They stand beside the rubble of their neighborhoods knowing that their relatives buried below are either already dead from injuries or in the last stages of dying from exposure.

One resident of Shiraz who recently returned from taking food to Bam described the scene in the city this way to RFE/RL's Radio Farda: "I have returned from Bam just this noon. I had taken them food and other stuff from Shiraz. The rescue forces from various countries are assisting in pulling out corpses. People are homeless, stranded in the street, looking devastated in the cold."

The bands of Iranian and foreign rescue workers who are the focus of all remaining hopes have had some remarkable success. The official Iranian news agency IRNA reports that 1,000 people have been pulled alive from the wreckage since the earthquake struck in the predawn hours of 26 December.

But some 20,000 bodies have also been recovered, and officials on the scene predict the death toll could rise to 30,000 as the whole of the destroyed city is searched.

Already, this is the deadliest earthquake anywhere in the world in the past 10 years.

Alan Pasche, a representative of a UN rescue-coordination team, told Reuters earlier today that rescue operations will continue at least until midnight local time. He said an assessment will then have to be made about whether further efforts would be helpful or fruitless.

As hopes dim for recovering survivors, rescue officials increasingly are turning their attention to relief efforts, particularly to feeding and sheltering the homeless and preventing the outbreak of disease. Aid workers estimate that some 100,000 people may been left without housing in the Bam area.

An Iranian correspondent in Bam, Ibrahim Nakisa (a pseudonym), told Radio Farda that aid workers will disinfect parts of the disaster area.

"International aid forces, Red Crescent, students, citizens, as well as relatives of the quake victims are conducting the relief efforts. Unfortunately, the gravest obstacle there right now is that tons of dirt has covered the victims and there is insufficient equipment such as bulldozers to remove the dirt and the debris. Therefore most of the bodies uncovered since yesterday are bloated, which can be the cause of various diseases. To prevent [outbreaks of disease], I've heard disinfecting will take place across the city today," Nakisa said.

The earthquake, which hit with a magnitude of 6.3, is reported to have destroyed about 70 percent of the city's mostly mud-brick buildings.

Stunned by the magnitude of the destruction, relief groups from numerous countries are rushing food, blankets, tents, and medical supplies into southeastern Iran. But the international effort, invited by the Iranian government, has been complicated by aftershocks, piles of bodies in the streets, overflowing cemeteries, and confusion.

Bam's small airport, which had never handled more than a handful of airplanes before last week, is now said to be packed with a dozen military and civilian cargo planes at any one time. The airport arrival hall has been transformed into a temporary hospital. Additional aid is arriving in the nearby provincial capital of Kerman, to which many injured have been evacuated.

Some residents and aid workers in Bam have characterized the aid effort as disjointed due to poor coordination between the foreign groups and local government authorities. One local man, Mehdi Denghani, told reporters that "there is no organization. Whoever is stronger takes the aid."

There also have been reports of armed theft. Reuters reports that some young men armed with automatic weapons have driven into Bam in vans and stolen tents from the Red Crescent. Others on motorbikes have chased after aid trucks to scoop up blankets being thrown down for the needy.

Correspondent Nakisa described the thefts this way: "Due to economic constraints and the low incomes of the people from the villages and cities adjacent to Bam, sometimes some of these villagers who have not suffered from the earthquake come to Bam to grab the items that are being distributed across the city by the Red Crescent's representatives. I spoke to a female victim who said that one-third of these people are not from here [Bam], but are grabbing blankets and the tents."

Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, traveled to Bam today to visit the disaster site. Speaking on Iranian state television, he pledged that Bam would be rebuilt "stronger than before" and called the city's destruction a blow to the Iranian nation: "I extend my profound condolences, with all my heart, to all the families, all the sisters and brothers, who have lost their loved ones in this event. I also extend my condolences to the Iranian nation."

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said Iran cannot cope with the disaster alone. He said the tragedy is so huge "that I believe no matter how much is done we cannot meet the people's expectations."

The international rescue effort has seen dozens of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries contributing aid, including several portable field hospitals. It also has seen the arrival of a U.S. Air Force cargo plane bringing in a first aid shipment from America. Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Tehran, has promised to send 70 tons of supplies originally intended for Iraq's reconstruction.

The U.S. aid flight into Iran is the first in decades and has given rise to some press speculation that it could produce some "earthquake diplomacy" leading to a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations.

But officials on both sides have said they consider humanitarian aid and politics to be separate issues.

U.S. State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said in Washington on 28 December that humanitarian aid "will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters." The United States is particularly concerned at what it sees as Iranian attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction.