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Ahmadinejad criticized for leaving Iran soon after quake, as death toll hits 306

 

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under fire for leaving Iran as the nation reeled from twin earthquakes that killed 306 and injured thousands just two days earlier, Reuters reports.

Ahmadinejad is visiting Saudi Arabia for a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is expected to deal with the crisis in Syria.

The decision to leave Iran less than two days after the quakes is criticized in an editorial in the newspaper Asr-e Iran, titled "Mr. Ahmadinejad, where have you gone?" 

"In every other part of the world, the tradition is that when natural disasters happen, leaders will change their plans and visit the affected areas in order to show their compassion ... and observe rescue efforts," the editorial said, according to Reuters.

Iran also faces criticism from lawmakers and the public after the search and rescue mission was called off Monday, Reuters reports.

"The crisis management headquarters must take broader steps to alleviate these concerns," said Ali Larijani, a rival to Ahmadinejad and a possible 2013 presidential election candidate. Members of parliament questioned Iran's lack of supplies for earthquake survivors.

Residents also expressed disbelief to Reuters that authorities could have reached some of the most remote villages that were hit.

Heath Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi told a session of parliament Monday that the death toll from the earthquakes jumped by about 50 after victims died in the hospital. More than 3,000 people were injured in the earthquakes.

Scores of aftershocks have coursed through Iran's mountainous northeast since the 6.4 and 6.3 magnitude quakes hit the region, where some 300,000 people live near the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Residents of the zone in northwestern Iran described moments of terror and panic with birds crowing loudly in warning seconds before the ground shook.

"The moment the earthquake hit, it was like a snake biting from underground. It was the worst experience of my life," said resident Morteza Javid, 47, from Ahar.

Television showed images of people being evacuated on stretchers, while others were treated for broken limbs and concussions. Dozens of families were sleeping on blankets laid out on the ground in parks.

Officials have announced two days of mourning in East Azerbaijan province.

Iran is located on seismic fault lines and is prone to earthquakes. In 2003, some 26,000 people were killed by a 6.6 magnitude quake that flattened the historic southeastern city of Bam.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.