The devastating earthquake leveled nearly three-quarters of the Iranian city of Bam on Friday. The preliminary death toll increased on Saturday to 20,000, the Interior Ministry said, and rescue crews said it could go even higher.
Officials said an accurate count was impossible with many victims still trapped under the rubble. An exact toll is not expected until much later because of the scope of the tragedy.
But the Interior Ministry later released a statement saying the early estimate was 20,000 people. It said 30,000 people were injured. The statement was broadcast on state television.
"The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," Iran's President Mohammad Khatami said. "However, all the institutions have been mobilized."
Two senior officials involved in the relief operation said they feared the final toll from Friday's temblor could be 40,000 dead, The AP reported.
The leader of a relief team, Ahmad Najafi, said 40,000 dead was his estimate of the ultimate toll. He said in one street alone in Bam on Saturday, 200 bodies had been extracted from the rubble in one hour's work.
"As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000," said Akbar Alavi, the governor of Kerman city, the local provincial capital. "An unbelievable human disaster has occurred."
The government asked for international assistance, particularly search and rescue teams. The United States promised to send aid, as did numerous European nations.
The city's two hospitals were destroyed in the earthquake, and while field hospitals were set up, they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of casualties.
Around 4,000 people have been sent to hospital in the provincial capital, Kerman, some 175 kilometres to the northwest.
© 2003 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )