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Iran's government criticized over earthquake response

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The moderate conservative newspaper Asr-e Iran reported that a full 24 hours after the earthquake, some villages had not yet been visited by relief teams.

"[Residents] say that most of the villages have been destroyed and still no tents have been sent, nor has any help been sent for the victims," the report said.

Two large quakes with magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.3 struck East Azerbaijan province on Saturday afternoon, flattening villages and injuring thousands around the towns of Ahar, Varzaghan, and Harees, near the provincial capital of Tabriz.

Officials deny sluggishness

Officials said the emergency response to the disaster was rapid, even though relief teams were hampered by the remoteness of quake-hit villages.

"We will rebuild these areas before the start of the winter," Hassan Ghadami, an emergency management official in the Interior Ministry, told lawmakers on Monday, Iran's state news agency IRNA reported.

The mud-brick construction of many village buildings was to blame for the wide destruction, he said.

"Relief forces were despatched in a normal and natural way and they were despatched to the affected areas quickly," Ghadami was quoted as saying by Iranian agencies.

Reza Sheibani, a Tabriz resident who owns a 24-hour pharmacy in Ahar, told Reuters by telephone that the government had acted well in deploying security forces to ensure public order in the panicked hours after the quakes.

Ahmadinejad abroad

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left as planned on Monday morning for Saudi Arabia, where he is to attend a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expected to focus on the crisis in Syria.

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