On Saturday afternoon, two earthquakes with magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.3 hit the East Azerbaijan province of Iran. Entire villages were flattened instantly, 360 people were killed and thousands were injured and displaced in the surrounding towns. Less than 24 hours later, officials announced that search and rescue operations had finished and all survivors had been freed from the rubble. However, those who know the area well insist that it would have been impossible to finish the rescue mission so soon. Locals explain that some villages are unreachable by car and so it would have taken time to get to there and assist those trapped. This, as well as the shortage of tents for the displaced, has sparked criticisms of the Iranian government’s response to the crisis.
These criticism have led some to speculate that the poor government response was due to the fact that those affected were mainly Azeri Turks, an ethnic minority in the northwest of Iran. President Ahmadinejad also left Iran on Monday morning to attend an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting which is expected to focus on the crisis in Syria.
In an editorial titled “Mr. Ahmadinejad, where have you gone?” Asr-e Iran criticized his decision to leave the country with his closest advisers less than two days after the quakes. “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,” Asr-e Iran wrote.
However, the Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi flew into the region and said he was there to show his sympathy for those affected by the quakes and that the government “shares their pain”.
Reuters also reported that Alireza Manadi Safidan, a legislator representing Tabriz, which is the nearest provincial capital in the earthquake-hit region, said: “Even though (on Saturday night) hundreds of people were under the rubble, on the television broadcasts … there was no mention of the disaster… (State television) was busy counting how many medals Iran won in the Olympics. They didn’t have any reaction to this event.”
According to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Iranian officials have reported that up to 17,000 people have been displaced or are in need of shelter. Iran has a long history of earthquakes. In March 2006, at least 70 people were killed in a 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Lorestan; in 2005 more than 500 people were killed by a quake in the Kerman province and in 2003, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in the ancient city of Bam killed more than 25,000 people.
: Image – Rescue teams search for victims in the earthquake-stricken village of Varzaqan near Ahar, in the East Azerbaijan province, August 12, 2012. REUTERS/Arash Khamooshi/ISNA
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