More than 20,000 people were killed when a massive earthquake devastated Iran's historic southeastern fort city of Bam and its surrounding district, a source in the provincial governor's office said.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that 50,000 others were injured.
The medieval fortress of the 2,000 year-old city of Bam, Iran, is seen in this photo taken in September 2003. An earthquake devastated the southeastern Iranian city of Bam on Friday Dec. 26, 2003 leveling more than half the city's houses and its historic mud-brick fortress. (AP Photo/Franco Fracassi)
Earlier, the governor of Kerman province, in which Bam is located, put the toll at between 5,000 and 6,000, while state television had spoken of 30,000 injured.
The tremor, which struck before dawn as most of the area's residents were asleep, was met with a swift response from the international community pledging immediate and long-term aid.
Bam is built almost entirely of mud brick and is ill-equipped to withstand a big temblor, an AFP correspondent said.
The city had a population of 90,000 people, with the district home to some 200,000 residents.
Bereaved residents wandered the streets of Bam pleading for the authorities to speed up rescue efforts.
The city's two hospitals were destroyed in the earthquake, and while field hospitals were set up, they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of casualties.
"Seventeen of my relatives are buried under the ruins of my home, they've got to get a move on or all of them will die," said one resident, who gave his name only as Ali, as he attempted to shift the rubble with a spade.
"Why is help so slow in coming?" asked another survivor. "If we were in the West, all resources would have been mobilised.
Kerman Governor Mohammad Ali Karimi said: "One thing is sure: the historic quarter of Bam has been completely destroyed and many of our countrymen are underneath the ruins. The situation is very worrying."
Those concerns became more urgent as night fell and temperatures dropped.
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mussavi-Lari said the top "priority is to get help to the injured who are under the rubble. It is very cold in the region, and we are very concerned" for them.
"Our second priority is to get the wounded to hospitals in the region," the minister said, adding that five military aircraft were shuttling between Bam and Kerman.
Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei conveyed his "heartfelt condolences to the noble Iranian nation and the bereaved families of the victims," state news agency IRNA reported.
"I pray to God for the fast recovery of the injured people and call the executive bodies to take immediate action in rendering aid to the needy people," he said.
President Mohammad Khatami declared the earthquake a "national disaster which requires collective collaboration and cooperation of all executive and military organizations to mobilize all their facilities to help the victims."
More than 90 percent of the old city, one of the wonders of Iran's cultural heritage, was destroyed. Besides the flattened homes, the 2,000-year-old citadel, once the largest mud-brick structure in the world, was gone forever.
Around 4,000 people have been sent to hospital in the provincial capital, Kerman, some 175 kilometres (110 miles) to the northwest, said Assadollah Iranmanesh, a member of Karimi's staff.
Family members carry their dead from the rubble after an earthquake struck the Iranian city of Bam December 26, 2003. The United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States and Russia were sending aid to Iran to help victims of a devastating earthquake on Friday that killed more than 20,000 people. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi
State television said another 170 people had been airlifted to Tehran for treatment and that a similar number had been sent to the southwestern city of Shiraz.
A three-day period of mourning was declared, as authorities broadcast urgent appeals for blood donations, blankets, food and clothes.
Hundreds of people crowded into Tehran hospitals to give blood.
Iran also quickly appealed for international aid.
"We need sniffer dogs and detection equipment, blankets, medicines, food, but also prefabricated houses because winter is coming very quickly," an interior ministry statement said.
The United Nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, together with European states, Middle Eastern countries and the United States, responded to the call for urgent aid.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's office said the world body had granted an immediate emergency grant of 90,000 dollars for Iran.
For its part, the Red Cross is preparing an appeal for about 10 million Swiss francs (6.4 million euros, eight million dollars), a spokesman in Geneva said.
Roy Probert said the appeal would cover emergency supplies such as tents, blankets and possibly field hospitals.
He added that Red Cross societies in Europe were already "queuing up" with offers of help.
And the foreign ministry in Israel, which Iran considers to be one of its greatest enemies, announced that Israeli non-governmental organizations are "looking into offering their help."
The quake hit at 5:28 am (0158 GMT), some 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) southeast of the capital, with a magnitude of 6.3 degrees on the Richter scale, IRNA quoted the Tehran University Geophysics Centre as saying.
Several aftershocks were recorded, the most violent occurring at 6:36 am (0306 GMT), IRNA said.
The Strasbourg Observatory in France put the quake at 6.6 and said the temblor was the most powerful in the region since 1998.
The US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center in Virginia measured it at 6.7.
Telephone and radio communications with the city, as well as the towns of Giroft and Kohnuj, were cut off following the quake.
The government has set up a crisis centre in Kerman, dispatching five helicopters and two huge C-130 transport planes to the quake site, IRNA quoted deputy provincial governor Hossein Marachi as saying.
Earthquakes are very frequent in Iran. Since 1991 nearly 1,000 of them have claimed some 17,600 lives and injured 53,000 people, according to official figures.
On August 27, a tremor of 5.7 jolted the Bam area, but caused no casualties.
The last major quake came in June 2002, when a tremor of 6.3 hit northwestern Iran, killing 235 people and injuring more than 1,300.
Copyright 2003 AFP