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Earthquake Kills at Least 420 in Iran

Under a cold, driving rain, survivors wailed over the bodies of the dead and dug through the ruins of mud-brick houses searching for their loved ones after a powerful earthquake flattened villages in central Iran (search) on Tuesday, killing at least 420 people.

The toll was expected to rise, because rescue teams did not have a final count from the three most isolated villages in the mountainous region. About 30,000 people were affected, many left homeless when some villages were reduced to piles of dirt and stone by the magnitude-6.4 earthquake. The number of injured was estimated at 900.

"Where have you gone? I had a lot of plans for you," Hossein Golestani sang softly as he held the lifeless form of his 7-year-old daughter, Fatima. The body of his 8-year-old daughter, Mariam, lay beside him in the devastated village of Hotkan.

Golestani and his wife were out tending their herd of goats when the quake struck at 5:55 a.m., wrecking their home.

Other survivors slapped their faces in grief as they sat next to the dead, who were wrapped in blankets in hospital morgues or on roadsides.

Some 40 villages were damaged in the quake, which struck a region 150 miles from Bam (search), site of a devastating earthquake in December 2003 that killed 26,000 people and leveled the historic city.

At dusk, temperatures fell and rain turned to snow in parts of the mountains, and survivors huddled around fires to keep warm, covering themselves in blankets and sipping hot soup. Some 1,500 workers from the Iranian Red Crescent (search) fanned out in teams, bringing tents and tarps.

Heavy rain and bad visibility hampered relief efforts. But Mohammad Javad Fadaei, deputy governor of Kerman province, said the search would continue through the night in Hotkan and two other villages, Sarbagh and Douheieh, which emergency crews had had the most difficulty reaching. Rescue efforts were finished in other villages, he told The Associated Press.

The quake was centered on the outskirts of Zarand, a town of 15,000 people in Kerman province about 600 miles southeast of Tehran, Iran's geological authority said.

Though comparable in strength to the 6.6-magnitude Bam quake, Tuesday's temblor hit a more sparsely populated area and was centered far deeper — some 25 miles, compared with six miles for Bam — limiting the damage.

Still, the tiny villages that dot the central mountains — most of them made in fragile mud brick — were hit hard. In Douheieh, every building except a mosque with a golden dome had collapsed. At least 80 percent of the buildings in Sarbagh were leveled.

Fadaei said the death toll stood at 420, with some 900 injured.

Residents of Khanook village carried bodies to the morgue for washing before burial. Others crowded around lists of the dead posted on the morgue's wall, breaking into cries if they found a relative's name.

"I lost everything. All my life is gone," sobbed Asghar Owldi, 60, his face bandaged. His wife and two children were killed.

Residents dug with bare hands and shovels in the hope of a finding family members alive. Bulldozers moved in later, along with rescue teams and helicopters, but most of those uncovered were already dead.

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards and Red Crescent teams provided the survivors with bottled water, bread and canned food.

The Iranian Red Crescent told international relief officials it did not need outside aid, said Roy Probert, a spokesman for the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Fadaei said Iran will not issue a plea for aid, but "if foreign countries volunteer their help, we'll take tents, blankets, cash and earth-moving machinery."

Iranian relief officials said they were benefiting from their experience in the Bam quake, which prompted one of the biggest international relief efforts ever.

"The earthquake in 2003 gave us a very good experience of how to deal with such a natural disaster. Despite the rain, relief operations are going smoothly. Relief teams have reached the villages and are helping the survivors," said Mostafa Soltani, a spokesman for the Kerman government.

Iran is located on seismic fault lines and is prone to earthquakes. It experiences at least one slight earthquake every day on average.