Powerful earthquake on Iran-Iraq border kills more than 340, injures thousands

A powerful magnitude 7.3 earthquake that struck the Iraq-Iran border region Sunday and has left over 340 people dead has sent people fleeing their homes, authorities said Monday.

The quake was felt as far west as the Mediterranean coast.

Iran’s western Kermanshah province bore the brunt of the quake, with Iran’s state-run news agency reporting that over 3,950 were also injured. The area is a rural, mountainous region where residents mainly work in farming.

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This building in Darbandikhan in Sulaimaniya Governorate, Iraq, collapsed during the earthquake. While a handful of people died in Iraq, the number of casualties on the Iranian side of the border was far higher. (Ako Rasheed/Reuters)

The earthquake killed at least seven people in Iraq and injured 535 there, all in the country’s northern, semiautonomous Kurdish region, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry.

The quake was centred 31 kilometres outside the eastern Iraqi city of Halabja, according to the most recent measurements from the U.S. Geological Survey. It struck at a depth of 23.2 kilometres, a shallow depth that can have broader damage. Magnitude 7 earthquakes on their own are capable of widespread, heavy damage.

More than 100 aftershocks

Iranian social media and news agencies showed images and videos of people fleeing their homes into the night. More than 100 aftershocks followed.

The quake’s worst damage appeared to be in the town of Sarpol-e-Zahab in Kermanshah province, which sits in the Zagros Mountains that divide Iran and Iraq.

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Iranians mourn one of the earthquake victims in the western province of Kermanshah. (Farzad Menati/AFP/Getty Images)

Kokab Fard, a 49-year-old housewife in Sarpol-e-Zahab, said she could only flee empty-handed when her apartment complex collapsed.

“Immediately after I managed to get out, the building collapsed,” Fard said. “I have no access to my belongings.”

‘It totally collapsed’

Reza Mohammadi, 51, said he and his family ran out into the alley following the first shock he felt.

“I tried to get back to pick some stuff but it totally collapsed in the second wave,” Mohammadi said.

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This earthquake victim, brought to Sulaimaniyah Hospital on Sunday in Iraq, is among thousands who were injured. (Shwan Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images)

Those in Sarpol-e-Zahab also said the power and water were out in the town as telephone and cellphone lines were spotty.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered his condolences on Monday morning and urged rescuers and all government agencies to do all they could to help those affected, state media reported. President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to tour earthquake-damaged areas Tuesday.

Quake felt in Baghdad

The semi-official ILNA news agency said at least 14 provinces in Iran had been affected by the earthquake.

Officials announced that schools in Kermanshah and Ilam provinces would be closed on Monday because of the temblor.

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People stand in the street after feeling aftershocks from an earthquake in Baghdad on Sunday. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a directive for the country’s civil defence teams and “related institutions” to respond to the natural disaster. Brig.-Gen. Saad Maan, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, gave the casualty figures for Iraq.

The quake could be felt across Iraq, shaking buildings and homes from Irbil to Baghdad, where people fled into the streets of the capital.

Turkey sends aid

The Iraqi city of Halabja, closest to the epicenter, is notorious for the 1988 chemical attack in which Saddam Hussein’s regime killed some 5,000 people with mustard gas — the deadliest chemical weapons attack ever against civilians.

Iraqi seismologist Abdul-Karim Abdullah Taqi, who runs the earthquake monitoring group at the state-run Meteorological Department, said the main reason for the lower casualty figure in Iraq was the angle and the direction of the fault line in this particular quake, as well as the nature of the Iraqi geological formations that could better absorb the shocks.

However, the temblor did visible damage to the dam at Darbandikhan, which holds back the Diyala River.

“There are horizontal and vertical cracks on the road and in the body of the dam and parts of the dam sank lower,” said Rahman Hani, director of the dam.

Turkey dispatched emergency aid to northern Iraq as officials expressed their “deep sadness” at the tragedy. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country took immediate action to provide medical and food aid to northern Iraq.

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The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centred 31 kilometres outside the eastern Iraqi city of Halabja. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Kerem Kinik, Turkish Red Crescent’s vice-president, told The Associated Press from Habur border crossing that 33 aid trucks were en route to the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, carrying 3,000 tents and heaters, 10,000 beds and blankets as well as food.

A Turkish military cargo plane arrived in Iraq as the official Anadolu news agency reported multiple dispatches by Turkey’s disaster agency. Ankara also said it would help Iran if Tehran requests assistance.

Trudeau offers sympathies

Relations between Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region and Turkey were strained following the Iraqi Kurds’ controversial September independence referendum.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country stands with the region in difficult times. Speaking en route to Sochi, Russia, Erdogan also said a convoy of 50 aid trucks has already crossed the border into Iraq. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s government extended its deepest condolences for the loss of life and injuries suffered by “our Iranian and Iraqi brethren.”

Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said Pakistanis’ “thoughts and prayers are with the Iranian and Iraqi brothers who lost their lives in this tragic calamity and we pray for the speedy recovery of the injured.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is in Manila for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, expressed his condolences on Twitter.

“Canadians offer their deepest sympathies to the families affected by the earthquake in the region.” he said.

Iran sits on many major fault lines and is prone to near-daily quakes. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake flattened the historic city of Bam, killing 26,000 people. The last major casualty earthquake in Iran struck in East Azerbaijan province in August 2012, killing over 300 people.

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