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Stones thrown at quake officials

Published: 7:18AM Monday June 24, 2002

Angry survivors of a earthquake in Iran have pelted an Iranian minister's convoy with stones after accusing authorities of responding too slowly to save people buried under the rubble of their homes.

Relief workers struggled to treat at least 1,500 injured people and set up shelter for those made homeless after a quake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit the northern Qazvin province, killing at least 222 people.

Around 60 people threw stones and rushed toward Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari's convoy as he visited one of the worst affected villages in the mountainous region.

The windows of an ambulance behind the minister's car were smashed.

Villagers, preparing to spend a second night outside in the cold, were angry they were still waiting for food, medicine and tents.

They said they needed pumps for clean water, power generators, and heavy machinery to clear the tonnes of debris.

Nearly half the homes there have been levelled leaving survivors unprotected against the soaring heat of the day and near-freezing mountain temperatures at night.

"My child died and the local people helped me to bring him out of the rubble. Only local people are helping," said one man in Avaj, a town of 3,600 people near the quake's epicentre 200 km west of the capital, Tehran.

Some 300 people blocked the main road through Avaj, local residents and officials said, in protest at the state's slow response to the tragedy.

Rescue remote

Police and soldiers joined the rescue effort which included sniffer dogs but were making slow progress.

"They left people under the rubble, even those who were alive, people who then died," said an elderly man.

Hassan Qadami, head of the Red Crescent rescue operation, said the search for victims began soon after the quake, but he had little hope they would find more survivors.

"We're almost done with rescue operations," Qadami said.

Qadami said his teams had set up 4,200 tents in the quake-hit region.

The Red Crescent said earlier 5,000 houses had been destroyed, leaving 25,000 people homeless.

The Red Crescent has revised the death toll down to 222 people from an earlier estimate of 500, saying some of the injured had mistakenly been counted among the dead.

But residents said they believed the death toll was higher.

Qazvin's governor Jalaleddin Sharafi said in a statement his office had already issued more than 500 burial permits.

US President George W Bush offered humanitarian aid, reaching out to a country he has labelled part of the "axis of evil" and accused of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Mousavi-Lari told reporters Tehhran was ready to accept help from US non-governmental organisations (NGOs) although he stopped short of accepting Bush's offer.

But some in Avaj said they desperately needed foreign assistance to cope with the disaster.

"We will accept the Americans' help. In three months it will snow and we'll need everything we can get. If the US will give us facilities we'll accept it," said Naser, standing outside the town's partly damaged school.

"If this would have happened in Afghanistan or Palestine they would hurry and help them in five or six hours. But here nothing is happening," he said.

Residents complained no tents had yet been set up in Avaj.

In nearby Changoureh, a wealthy resort village north of Avaj, not a single home escaped damage.

"Because these concrete buildings were not strong, it was obvious to us from the beginning the people inside were dead," said Hossein Rehenema, head of the Red Crescent in Changoureh.

"Unfortunately, we couldn't find anyone. There are maybe four or five still alive. That's why we're using machines to clean up the debris elsewhere," he said.

Rehenema said workers had recovered 130 bodies in the village. © Reuters