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TEHRAN - (UPDATED 2:01 a.m.) Two strong quakes in quick succession struck towns and destroyed villages in northwest Iran, killing at least 87 people and injuring 600 on Saturday, officials said.
The scale of the disaster was still emerging, with the casualty toll creeping up as the hours ticked by.
Officials had to use radios because of disrupted telephone communications in the region and dispatched helicopters to remote villages.
The head of the regional natural disasters centre, Khalil Saie, who gave the latest casualty count to state television, said: "We are asking people to not panic. Help is arriving and rescuers are already at the scene."
The quakes measured 6.2 and 6.0 on the moment magnitude scale, according to Tehran University's Seismological Centre.
The US Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity worldwide, ranked them as more powerful than that, at 6.4 and 6.3, respectively.
According to the local Red Crescent director, cited by the official news agency IRNA, 210 people were rescued from the quake rubble and taken to hospital.
An emergency services official said 66 rescue teams were at work, using 40 devices and seven dog squads to detect buried survivors. He said 185 ambulances had been sent to the area.
Those hurt were taken to hospitals in Tabriz and Ardebil, the two biggest nearby cities, both of which escaped relatively unscathed by the temblors.
The towns of Ahar and Varzaqan, 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Tabriz, were the hardest hit, being closest to the epicentres of the two quakes. Heris, another town close by, was also badly shaken. Scores of villages were decimated.
"Sixty villages have been 60 to 80 percent destroyed and four villages were 100 percent destroyed," Saei said.
There were "30 deaths in Ahar, 40 deaths in Varzaqan and 10 deaths in Heris," he said. Another seven people had died as they were being transferred to hospital.
Municipal officials in Ahar and Varzaqan were giving higher counts, suggesting the overall toll could rise further.
Allahverdi Dehqani, a lawmaker in Varzaqan, confirmed that "most of the villages around Varzaqan have been damaged."
Residents in the region were terrified as their homes shook around them when the quakes hit, and they fled into the streets for safety, according to reports.
Rescue operations were continuing into the night.
Tehran University's Seismological Centre said the first earthquake hit at 4:53 pm (1223 GMT) with an epicentre just 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Tabriz, close to Ahar, and at a depth of 10 kilometres.
The second -- actually a big aftershock -- rumbled through just 11 minutes later from nearly the same spot. A series of 17 smaller aftershocks rating 4.7 or less rapidly followed.
The disaster zone was located around 90 kilometres from the borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and around 190 kilometres from the border with Turkey.
Iran sits astride several major fault lines and is prone to frequent earthquakes, some of which have been devastating.
The deadliest was a 6.6-magnitude quake which struck the southern city of Bam in December 2003, killing 31,000 people -- about a quarter of the population -- and destroying the city's ancient mud-built citadel.