TEHRAN, Iran (UPI) -- The strongest earthquake recorded in the world this year smashed a heavily populated region on the eastern fringe of Iran's Great Kavir Desert Saturday. First reports said major loss of life was feared.
The early reports said at least 24 persons were killed.
The massive quake, measuring 7.7 on the open-ended Richter scale, hit an area about 600 miles south of Tehran and the tremor was felt in the capital.
Radio Iran said nine persons were killed in a hamlet near the town of Tabas, about 600 miles southeast of Tehran. Another 15 persons died in hamlets near Ferdows, the last town on the highway leading south from the holy city of Ashad, the radio said.
Both Tabas and Ferdows were badly damaged, the radio said, but gave no casualties for the towns. It said widespread deaths were feared.
The quake also shook Tehran. Water splashed out of swimming pools and wall hangings crashed to the floor amid general panic, but there were no reports of casualties int he capital.
The U.S. Geological Survey in Washington said at 7.7, Saturday's quake was the highest magnitude recorded in the world this year.
A spokesman for the Central Geophysical Institute in Tehran said the entire mountains belt from Yazd in central Iran to Kerman in the south was hit. But his later reports made no mention of damage in Yazd or Kerman.
Kerman was the site of the disastrous earthquake in December 1977, in which at least 521 people died in their sleep when their homes collapsed, burying them under tons of debris.
Information gathering was hampered by curfew imposed on Tehran and 11 other cities following nationwide rioting.
The president of the Red Lion and Sun Society, Iran's Red Cross, Hossein Khatibi, and rescue and relief teams were sent to the affected area for a full-scale aid operation.
Incomplete reports from the area said the towns of Birjand, Ferdows, Tabas and Gonabad were the worst hit.
In Tehran, the quake spread panic and sent crowds spilling out into the streets.