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Iran Quake Toll Could Go Up 50,000: Official

KERMAN, Iran, December 30 - The death toll in the earthquake which devastated the Bam region of southeast Iran could exceed 50,000, a senior provincial official said Tuesday, December 30.

\"The number of dead could exceed 50,000 because some districts [of Bam] and some surrounding villages have not been properly searched yet,\" the official in the Kerman disaster zone, asking not to be named, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

\"In some instances, whole families have been wiped out and so there is nobody to inform the rescue teams\" since Friday\'s quake, he said.

A U.N. spokesman said Monday that the death toll could to go up and the real figure may never be known.

\"But whole families have perished and entire neighborhoods have been flattened, so there has been no-one left to register them as missing,\" said Ted Purn.

Purn said the focus of the operation was now more on digging up dead bodies and burying them rather than looking for survivors.

\"Yesterday, we heard they found three people alive. But this is now more of a recovery rather than a rescue effort,\" he added.

Iranian local officials Monday, December 29, put the number of casualties from the tragic earthquake at about 30,000.

A total of 28,000 bodies have been recovered from the rubble of the killer tremor, state radio reported Tuesday quoting local officials.

Only 2,000 people have been pulled out alive following the quake which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale and destroyed 70 percent of the historical city of Bam.

Bam\'s ancient citadel, a world architectural heritage site, was leveled by the quake.

President Mohammad Khatami promised to rebuild the town in two years, Iran radio reported.

\"The town of Bam must reappear on the map of Iran,\" Khatami said during a meeting with members of his government, local officials in the quake-hit area and military at Bam airport.

\"The town will be reconstructed in two years,\" he added. \"We must talk of the living, and try to reconstruct the affected areas,\" Khatami said.

U.S. Doctors Arrive

Meanwhile, 80 U.S. doctors and rescue workers, flown in from a U.S. air base in the region, arrived Monday in Kerman and were headed by road for Bam, a local government official told AFP.

On Sunday, the first U.S. military flight to Iran since the hostage crisis at the American Embassy in Tehran ended in 1981 carried emergency aid to the population of Bam.

The U.S. Air Force said more flights would follow.

The United States said Monday it was ready to provide more aid and explained why it ignored two decades of suspicion to help its \"axis of evil\" foe.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage placed a rare call by a senior U.S. official to Iran Friday night, U.S. time, when the full extent of the deadly earthquake at Bam was becoming clear.

Mohammad Zarif, Iran\'s Ambassador to the United Nations, was in Tehran at the time, and telephoned Armitage back shortly afterwards to accept his offer of aid, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

Armitage said the earthquake was \"a humanitarian tragedy that transcended political considerations and called for the support of the United States, and we were offering that support,\" Ereli said

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