- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

BAM, Iran — The Red Crescent’s senior official here implored foreign rescue teams yesterday to continue their work, insisting as many as 1,000 people could still be alive under the debris left by an earthquake that occurred Friday.

Iran’s deputy health minister said local officials had reported that up to five persons were rescued Tuesday night, but U.N. and other search officials discounted the likelihood of finding anyone else alive.

“I am sure upon my statistics that 1,000 trapped people are still alive, I am sure that we will still find many people over the next six days,” said the Red Crescent’s coordinator, Jalil Tabatabaei, in Bam. “The rescue teams have to keep going with all technical capabilities for at least 10 days after the earthquake.”

The rescue teams remaining in Bam and the U.N. staff coordinating the search questioned Mr. Tabatabaei’s calculations.

“I’m sorry, I can’t subscribe to that view. I’m not saying it’s not impossible that there might be one or two left alive, but that would be exceptional,” said Ted Pearn, the manager of the U.N. mission in Bam.

At least 12 rescue teams had already left Bam as of yesterday, including four from Britain. About 20 teams were still combing the powdery rubble that is all that remains of the historic mud-brick city.

Among those remaining was an American humanitarian team — which represents the first official contact between the United States and Iran since 1979 — that yesterday began constructing a field hospital that will be operational for several weeks.

As the Americans erected tents emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, a crowd of curious residents gathered to watch.

“For Americans to come here and help us in such a situation, I really appreciate it and all Iranians appreciate it,” said a Muslim cleric, Sheik Ahmad Faiz.

In Washington, the Bush administration yesterday eased restrictions on assistance to Iran in response to the earthquake.

Blanket licenses are being issued to permit American companies and individuals to transfer funds to Iran, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced.

As a result, there is a 90-day period, which began Saturday, during which Americans can donate funds to private organizations for relief and reconstruction efforts, the Treasury office said.

It had been illegal to transfer funds to Iran because of sanctions on Tehran, dating to 1979.

The American team’s members yesterday played down the political significance of their arrival in Iran.

“I’m just a humanitarian. We were not briefed on any politics,” said Steve Catlan, one of the mission’s program officers. “But I suppose it’s a measure of the magnitude of this disaster that we’re here.”

Neither he nor any of the other foreign rescue team members expected to encounter any more survivors — a view seconded by the U.N. officials coordinating the search.

“We’re just trying to pinpoint where the dead bodies are,” said Ulav Lea, a Norwegian dog handler combing the rubble. “This late in the day, there are no more survivors.”

The foreign rescue teams, equipped with sniffer-dogs, thermal and sonar devices and heavy-lifting gear, had as of yesterday rescued only one person, who was pulled from the powdery rubble within 24 hours of the quake.

Most of those trapped are thought to have died within hours of the quake because of the suffocating density of the debris or the nightly sub-freezing temperatures.

Mr. Catlan said the American team had left their search-and-rescue complement behind in Kuwait after being advised by the Iranian government “that they would no longer be necessary because it was too late, the rescue phase was over.”

But Mr. Tabatabaei, a veteran of many earthquakes including one in which his wife and daughter were killed, said that the cold temperatures could in certain cases increase the chances of survival.

“The cold weather could put people in a coma, and it would be difficult to detect them,” he said. “These [U.N.] officials think everyone is dead because they have no experience. I am sure that many people have been rescued and more people will be.”

Dr. Mohammed Ismael Akbari, the deputy health minister, said four or five people were rescued by soldiers in Barabat, on the outskirts of Bam, on Tuesday night — almost 120 hours after the quake leveled their two houses.

“We need the foreign rescue teams yet. I will ask them to be here,” he said.

Mr. Pearn did not dispute that survivors could have been found. But he noted that Bam has been awash with reports of remarkable rescues ever since the quake but only one had been confirmed.

“We’re not saying anyone’s lying, but whenever we hear one of these reports, we investigate and find that the rescuers were Iranian teams and then there are no details,” he said.

“On the other hand, we are certain that trained [foreign] professionals with all the equipment have scoured every bit of the city and found one survivor.”

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