BRITISH rescue experts were arriving in Iran to help search for survivors of the devastating earthquake which has claimed the lives of up to 25,000 people.
Recovery teams flew from Stansted airport last night (Friday) after the government paid for an aircraft to fly to the stricken country.
International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, who described yesterday’s earthquake as a “major catastrophe”, said the plane was carrying volunteers, sniffer dogs, doctors, paramedics and government officials.
Disaster struck when a quake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale reduced much of the the historic city of Bam to rubble.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke to Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi to express the condolences of the British government.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of this area who have been affected,” he said.
“We will do all we can to help.”
The Department for International Development asked specialist rescue groups Rapid-UK and the British-based International Rescue Corps (IRC), as well as three fire and rescue teams from Essex, Hampshire and Kent to join the rescue efforts.
A total of 60 people took off from Stansted at 9.45pm last night, including 20 from Rapid-UK, 15 from IRC, 20 from the UK fire service and rescue dogs from British International Rescue Dogs (BIRD) and Canis.
The crews will use specialist equipment such as snake-eye cameras and listening devices and have taken their own tents and essential equipment to ensure they are self-sufficient. Cheshire Fire Service is also on stand-by to spend specialist crews to the disaster zone.
The devastating quake hit Bam, 630 miles south-east of the capital Tehran, at 5.28am local time, when most people were still asleep.
Reports from the scene described the devastation as “beyond imagination”, with many people buried under rubble.
It is feared that 60 per cent of the houses in the city of 80,000 people were destroyed, leaving up to 25,000 dead.
Some parts of the city, including a fortress, date back about 2,000 years and it attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The British Red Cross (BRC) has launched an appeal to raise money for tents, tarpaulins, water containers, kitchen sets and water purification tablets. It will be working with the Iranian Red Crescent, which has set up two field hospitals, a medical team and 250 volunteers.
Thousands who survived were left homeless and were spending the night in the open in freezing weather.
Mohammed Karimi, who in his 30s, lost his wife and four-year-old daughter.
“There is nothing but devastation and debris,” he said as he held his dead daughter in his arms.
“Trucks are hauling bodies to bury them in mass graves.”
President Mohammad Khatami attended an emergency meeting and urged the entire country to help the victims of the quake.
Few buildings in Iran are designed to withstand quakes and he declared three days of mourning for what he called “a national tragedy”.
A Turkish TV reporter said Bam looked as if it had been hit by a bomb and added: “People are trying to pull bodies out of the rubble.”
In a second quake, a tremor of magnitude 4 rocked the west Iranian town of Masjid Soleiman at 8:10 am.
Iran has a history of earthquakes that kill thousands of people. In 1990, a 7.3 quake killed about 50,000 people in north west Iran.
In 1978, a quake of magnitude 7.7 killed about 25,000 people in the north east.