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Three Dead, Dozens Wounded in North Iran Earthquake

Iran is cleaning up Saturday after an earthquake overnight left at least three people dead and scores injured. The country's interior minister says that hospitals and the Iranian Red Crescent have been tending to the victims of the quake, which registered 5.9 on the Richter scale.

Buildings shook and walls collapsed into piles of rubble, as citizens scurried for cover in the northern Iranian province of Semnan, overnight Saturday.

Frightened villagers in the hard-hit region of Damghan spent the rest of the night outdoors, wrapped in blankets, amid fears of fresh aftershocks.

Experts from Iran's seismological center indicated that the quake was felt as far away as the capital, Tehran. Iranian TV also reported that there were more than a dozen aftershocks.

Iran's Interior Minister Mohammad Mustapha Najjar toured the stricken area and described what happened to journalists.

He says that during the night an earthquake measuring 5.9 struck the region of Damghan and centered in the area of Torouk, killing three people, including an elderly woman, and that several hundred people were wounded. He adds that 700 homes were destroyed, but that the government has set up a fund to help them.

Najjar also noted that the Iranian Red Crescent was helping those affected by the earthquake and that hospitals across the region were caring for the wounded.

Geological atlases indicate that Iran is criss-crossed by dozens of fault-lines. The country has a mountainous topography in many regions, including large oil, natural gas and mineral deposits underground.

Several major earthquakes have struck the country in recent years, including one devastating tremor which destroyed the ancient walled city of Bam in 2003, killing thousands.

Houchang Hassan-yari, who teaches at Canada's Royal Military College recalls those recent quakes and says Iranians are worried about "the big one" that's yet to come. "Just a few years ago in Bam, an earthquake killed more than 30,000 people. Before that, in the [19]70s there was a very, very damaging earthquake in Tabas area in the province of Khorrasan. [Now], everybody is waiting for the big earthquake to happen in Tehran," he said.

He notes that earthquake worries recently prompted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to devise a plan to move part of the population outside of Tehran. "They've already moved a number of government ministries and offices outside the capital," he says, "but the plan is poorly conceived because new buildings to house them are not earthquake-resistant."

The Iranian press has repeatedly criticized the president's plan to move part of the population out of Tehran, and many ordinary citizens have expressed anger at what they call the government's "high-handedness."