TEHRAN, Iran - In a change of heart, Iran said Tuesday it now welcomes foreign aid for victims of the deadly twin earthquakes that hit the country's northwest over the weekend.
The remarks indicated authorities were struggling to cope with the quakes' aftermath. Critics charged they failed to react quickly enough to help the region along the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia, where the 6.4 and 6.3 magnitude quakes Saturday killed 306 people and injured more than 3,000.
"We would welcome help by any country," said Iran's parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, during his visit to the earthquake-stricken area on Tuesday. Iran's government said it has provided shelter for about 50,000 people who lost their homes during the quakes, which have been followed by scores of aftershocks.
A magnitude 5.3 aftershock on Tuesday afternoon jolted the town of Varzaqan again, the semioffical Fars news agency reported. Varzaqan was one of the weekend epicenters. The Tuesday aftershock quake also rocked Tabriz, the provincial capital, where frightened people poured into streets.
No further casualties were reported. Many Tabriz residents have stayed outdoors, some in public parks, since the first tremors. The weekend quakes hit the towns of Ahar, Haris and Varzaqan in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan.
At least 12 villages were destroyed, and 425 others sustained damage ranging from 50 to 80 percent of their buildings, state TV and news agencies reported. The stricken region has a population of about 300,000. Many roads and other infrastructure were heavily damaged. State TV showed relief workers distributing tents and helping survivors, mainly in rural areas.
Authorities said the quake caused some $600 million in damage. In Tehran and other major cities, people stood in long lines to donate blood for the injured. For two days after the quakes, Tehran insisted it needed no foreign assistance to handle the situation, but on Tuesday, Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said Iran is now welcoming assistance from abroad for the quake victims.
On Monday, Iran's Red Crescent sent back a rescue team from Turkey that arrived without advance coordination. The head of Red Crescent Society of in the quake-stricken province also said international aid was not needed.
Spokesman Pouya Hajian told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, UNICEF, Turkey, Taiwan, Singapore, Germany and many embassies in Tehran had offered help, but that the Iranian Red Crescent was able to handle the quake-stricken areas.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that the U.S. had not had "any pickup" from Iran on Washington's offer of assistance, and noted Iranian public statements that it did not need outside aid. "Nonetheless, our offer stands on the table," she said. Nuland said despite U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, Americans wishing to provide food and medicine to victims of the disaster could do so without obtaining a special license, and certain noncommercial financial transactions were also possible.
The Tehran turnaround came Tuesday. "Now and under the current circumstances, we are ready to receive help from various countries," Rahimi was quoted as saying by state IRNA news agency. His about face followed scathing criticism at home. Lawmakers lashed out at the government over what they called its "slow reaction," Iranian newspapers reported Tuesday.
The independent Sharq daily quoted legislator Allahvedi Dehqani from Varzaqan as saying initial aid arrived three hours after the quake jolted his constituency. Lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian said that when a 6.4 quake causes "such a big loss, the main problem is mismanagement." Over the past few years, the Iranian government has offered low-interest loans for projects to reinforce buildings in rural areas.
The campaign has been ineffective, mostly due to lack of supervision. Official statistics indicate only 20 percent of the buildings in rural areas have metal or concrete frames. On Monday, the government announced it would grant about $3,500 to each family whose property was damaged in the quakes, and would offer a $10,000 low-interest loan for reconstruction of family homes.
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.
NASSER KARIMI Associated Press
The Associated Press