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Iranian man weeps over the body of his relative, who was killed in an earthquake in the village of Sarbagh. (AP photo)

The death toll from an earthquake in central Iran climbed to at least 420 people by late Tuesday, with more than 900 others hospitalized, as rescuers continued to uncover bodies in dozens of flattened villages.

The 6.4-magnitude quake hit at about 5:55 a.m. local time in Kerman province near the town of Zarand, about 740 kilometres southeast of Tehran.

It's also about 200 kilometres northwest of the historic city of Bam, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2003.

Officials said late Tuesday that as many as 40 villages may have been destroyed.

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Earthquake damaged house on the outskirts of Zarand, Iran. (AP photo)

Hospitals in the area of the quake filled to capacity by evening. TV footage showed residents digging frantically amid collapsed slabs of concrete and piles of dirt from collapsed mud-brick houses, trying to find buried friends and relatives.

Heavy rain and dropping temperatures hampered rescue efforts, as well as attempts to locate survivors to nearby towns.

As many as 30,000 people could be homeless as a result of the quake.

The Iranian Red Crescent Society has said it does not need outside aid, but Iranian officials say medicines, syringes and tents are in short supply.

Iran lies on top of seismic fault lines and is often shaken by quakes. Some recent tragedies:

  • In the Bam incident in December 2003, one of the worst in recent memory, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake killed about 40,000 people in the southeastern Iranian city.
  • Last May, a 6.2-magnitude quake in the city of Sari killed at least 45 people and injured about 400 others, as well as causing serious damage.
  • In October, a 5.8-magnitude quake shook northeast Iran, injuring 12 people.