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With hopes fading for the rescue of more survivors, Iranian government officials have placed the death toll from Friday's earthquake in the ancient city of Bam as high as 20,000.

But the process of counting the dead has been "wildly chaotic," one observer said Sunday.

The Interior Ministry said at least 20,000 had died, while state television reported the confirmed toll at 14,000. The Department of Natural Disasters would only confirm that 7,000 people had been killed.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari told reporters that more than 15,000 bodies had already been buried.

As the search for survivors continued, attention has turned to helping those left without food or housing. The quake -- which the U.S. Geological Survey says had a magnitude of 6.6 -- hit Bam before dawn Friday. So far, no one has been pulled from the rubble alive.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has promised to make sure international aid gets to those who need it "as soon as possible."

Khatami, who has not visited the quake site, said on national television, "Our people are burning in their sorrows for what has happened."

At least 21 nations have sent or are sending aid, said Madeline Moulin from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid. Dozens of non-governmental organizations also were helping.

Planes delivering supplies and personnel converged on the airport in Kerman, the provincial capital, where they were unloaded for the 120 mile drive to Bam.

The United States -- which has brushed off frosty relations and a branding of Iran as part of President Bush's "axis of evil" -- is sending military plane loads of rescue resources and equipment.

President George W. Bush issued a statement saying that Americans "stand ready to help the people of Iran."

According to CNN's Ryan Chilcote, about 12 American planes -- including two U.S. military C-130 transport plan -- landed in Kerman's airport Sunday, carrying the first of more than 200 personnel and over 150,000 pounds of medical supplies.

They were the first U.S. military flights into Iran since an elite force tried to rescue U.S. hostages there in April 1980. (Full story)

A Japanese medical team also arrived at the normally quiet airport as were French rescuers with specially trained dogs. Chilcote said the airport was serving as a makeshift hospital, and injured Iranians were flown from there to hospitals around the country.

Among other countries providing aid were Austria, Azerbaijan, Britain, Finland, Germany, Russia and Turkey.


The United States is sending more than 200 personnel and more than 150,000 pounds of medical supplies to Iran.
"Beyond all the problems that exist in the world at the moment, it seems that we can still find kindness and brotherhood among all peoples," said Khatami, "because they have shown sympathy and they have shown their readiness to assist the peoples of our country, and put all the differences and conflicts aside, and come to our aid."

Iran has said it would not accept assistance from Israel. Nevertheless, non-governmental organizations within Israel are working to help provide relief.

Thousands of mud-brick homes were destroyed in the earthquake, and those still standing are in danger of collapse, said Nai Jit Lam, part of the U.N. assessment team on the scene. So thousands of residents are staying in tents provided by the United Nations and international relief organizations, he said.

The many Iranians injured have been taken to hospitals around the country, Khatami said. He called on Iranians to treat the injured as "guests," adding, "this is not a temporary situation."

Injured people were shown sobbing on state television, and some said they lost dozens of family members.

Some complained that in the hours after the earthquake they had screamed for someone to help them pull out their family members but got no help.

"They don't come to pull out our children," said one.

With temperatures near freezing at night, homeless residents built fires outside and huddled together with donated blankets.

There was no power, fuel or water in the city, and people were being given bread to eat. Survivors have been clawing at rubble with their hands trying to find others still alive, and distraught relatives were seen wailing in grief.

Iran began three days of mourning Friday.

About 80 percent of the city's buildings were likely destroyed in the quake, including two hospitals.

Bam was a popular tourist attraction because of its 2,000-year-old citadel, which was on the register of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and has been a World Heritage site.

As many as 30,000 people are believed to have been injured in the city of 80,000, the ministry said.

Roland Schlachter, who heads a Swiss rescuer team, says the chances of finding survivors are extremely low.

"It has to do with the way the houses were built and have collapsed. There appears to be very few air spaces created when the buildings collapsed," he told German television.

Experts have also warned of more tremors and aftershocks.


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