News of the relief efforts being stepped up in Iran after quakes.  Iran has stepped up relief operations in shattered villages in its northeast after saying rescue operations are complete following a double earthquake that cost 227 lives and injured 1380 people.

“Search and rescue operations have ended and we are now working to ensure survivors’ needs in terms of shelter and food,” Interior Minister Moustafa Mohammad-Najjar told state television as he announced the casualty toll on Sunday.

He and other officials said the rubble left by Saturday’s earthquakes hid no more survivors, making further rescue activities unnecessary.

About half of the 600 villages located in the disaster zone, an area northeast of the city of Tabriz, were damaged, some of them badly, he said. A dozen or more were completely razed.

The first of the earthquakes registered a strong 6.4 on the moment magnitude scale, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity worldwide.

The second, almost as strong at 6.3 on the scale, rumbled through just 11 minutes after the first. Many smaller aftershocks followed.

While Tabriz and nearby towns escaped with only relatively minor damage, many outlying villages where buildings are made of more flimsy mud and concrete bricks were decimated.

The interior minister said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had given orders for home reconstruction to begin immediately because of the harsh winter that the mountainous region experiences.

The region declared two days of mourning for the lives lost in the disaster.

An estimated 16,000 people remained homeless by the quakes or too afraid to return to cracked homes they feared unstable.

Iran’s Red Crescent distributed thousands of tents and supplies of food and water to help them through the days ahead, and put up 4000 emergency shelters in a sporting stadium.

It also said it turned down offers of help from Turkey, Taiwan, Singapore and Germany because Iran was able to cope with the disaster by itself.

Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Sunday sent his condolences to Ahmadinejad over the earthquakes, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.

Pope Benedict XVI and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also expressed sympathies.

There were many stories of tragedy in Iran’s disaster.

Zeinab, a 13-year-old girl seen outside a Red Crescent tent in the village of Mirza Ali Kandi, told AFP how she saw her eight-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister die before her eyes.

“I was outside my home playing when it (the first quake) happened. I ran inside looking for my brother and found him under a big pile of rubble. I tried to get him out. And then I heard my sister cry out and I turned and she has a big stone in her head, and I ran out,” she said, sobbing.

“I wish it had been me, too; I wish I hadn’t run out,” she yelled, prompting her uncle to try to console her.

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