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Powerful earthquakes strike Iran, killing at least 250, destroying villages

Two larges earthquakes hit northwestern Iran on Saturday. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Updated at 2:40 a.m. ET: Two powerful earthquakes struck northwest Iran Saturday, killing more than 250 people and injuring about 2,000 in northwest Iran, where rescuers combed the rubble of villages through the night into Sunday, state media reported.

The U.S. Geological survey measured the first quake, which struck 37 miles northeast of the city Tabriz, at 3:25 p.m. local time (6:55 a.m. ET) with a 6.4 magnitude. The second quake, which occurred 11 minutes later, struck an area about 30 miles northeast of Tabriz with a 6.3 magnitude. 

Farshid Tighehsaz / AFP - Getty Images

Residents and rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble of a house in a village near the town of Varzaqan, after twin earthquakes hit northwestern Iran on Saturday.

Most of the casualties were in outlying villages, Reuters reported.

The second quake struck near the town of Varzaghan. "The quake was so intense that people poured into the streets through fear," Fars news agency said of the town.

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A local official in the area told Iranian Students' News Agency that six villages had been completely destroyed and 60 villages had been 50 to 70 percent destroyed.

A local provincial official urged people in the region to stay outdoors during the night for fear of aftershocks, according to the official IRNA news agency. ISNA said there had been more than 40 aftershocks, measuring in magnitude between 4.5 and 5.0, according to Reuters.

Reuters reported that more than 200 people in the town of Varzaghan and Ahar had been rescued from under the rubble of collapsed buildings, an official IRNA news agency said, quoting a local official.

"Unfortunately there are still a number of people trapped in the rubble but finding them is very difficult because of the darkness," national emergency head Gholam Reza Masoumi was quoted as saying by Fars.

Kamel Rouhi / AFP - Getty Images

An Iranian medic attends to an injured woman as people gather outside a hospital in the town of Ahar, Iran, after a two strong earthquakes and multiple aftershocks hit northwestern Iran on August 11, 2012.

Photographs posted by Iranian news websites showed bodies lying on the floor in the corner of a white-tiled morgue in the town of Ahar, and medical staff, surrounded by anxious residents, treating the injured in the open air as dusk fell.

Other images showed collapsed buildings and cars flattened by rubble.

U.S. Geological Survey

A map shows the location of the two earthquakes that hit Iran Saturday evening.

Local media reports said the earthquakes had broken telephone communications to many villages, making rescue efforts harder. Lawmaker Abbas Falah said people in the region are in need of bread, tents and drinking water, Reuters reported.

The hospital in Varzaghan, staffed by just two doctors and suffering from shortages of medical supplies and food, was struggling to cope with about 500 injured, the Mehr news agency reported.

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Tabriz is a major city and trading up far from Iran’s oil producing areas and known nuclear facilities. Though buildings in the city are substantially built, homes and businesses in Iranian villages are often made of concrete blocks of mud brick that can crumble and collapse in a strong quake.

Iran is situated amid several major fault lines and is well known for its long history of devastating earthquake activity. The last major earthquake, which struck the city of Bam in December 2003, had a 6.6 magnitude and killed more than 30,000 people – about a quarter of its population – and injured an additional 30,000.

This article includes reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.

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