GARAJ, Iran, Mar 31 (Reuters) A strong earthquake hit western Iran today, killing at least 70 people and devastating villages, a provincial official said.
More than 1,200 people were injured in an area around the cities of Doroud and Boroujerd in the province of Lorestan, said Ali Barani, head of the provincial emergency team for disasters.
Some survivors were dug out of the rubble of buildings alive, rescue officials said. In the worst hit areas, brick buildings collapsed into piles of masonry and mud homes were reduced to mounds of dust.
Barani said 330 village in the area were severely damaged but the death toll was unlikely to rise much further.
''If there are any changes, it will be very few,'' he said by phone from Lorestan.
Strong tremors last night helped keep the toll down because they drove many to leave their homes and take to the streets well before the big quake hit this morning.
Moussa Shaban, 42, in the quake-hit village of Garaj, said the earlier shocks had prompted his wife and six children to sleep outside but his aging mother had refused. She was killed when the main magnitude 6.0 quake hit.
''I told her to come out, I said 'Don't stay stay inside tonight, it's dangerous'. But she said 'No, the earthquake is over','' he said, standing next to his shattered home in Garaj, 30 km southwest of Boroujerd.
Nearby, a group of women in long black Islamic dress wailed in mourning for Shaban's mother and another man killed.
Families in other villages had similar tales about how they had managed to escape being buried under their homes.
Hospitals were full in Doroud and Boroujerd, state radio reported. Lorestan Governor-General Mohammad Reza Mohseni-Sani appealed for aid from neighbouring areas.
US AID OFFER President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered emergency relief sent to the quake zone, IRNA said. It included sniffer dogs to search for survivors and two helicopters, state television said.
The United States, which has had no diplomatic ties with Iran since US diplomats were held hostage in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, also offered humanitarian assistance.
''If you remember, the United States extended arthquake assistance to Iran at the time of the Bam earthquake and I am quite certain we would be more than prepared to do the same,'' US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Britain.
The 2003 earthquake in Bam, 1,000 km southeast of the capital, killed about 31,000.
In Geneva, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, using information from the Iranian Red Crescent, said rescue teams had been mobilised.
There are no major oil facilities in the area. Iran is crisscrossed with seismic faultlines. The worst recorded earthquake was in 1990, when a 7.7 quake in the northeast killed 35,000 people.
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