In a televised address late Saturday, President Muhammad Khatami said he will visit the city on Sunday or Monday, and has asked aid workers to move up a gear.

"I asked the different bodies for complete coordination and a
speeded up (effort) to find survivors."

The Iranian leader also ordered officials from different cities to take in those injured in the disaster and "house them for as long as  necessary, even after their recovery."

Iran's health minister Dr Ahmad Pezeshkian said that the killed or injured represented 65 to 70 percent of the city's population.

At least 20,000 people are now feared dead and tens of thousands wounded in the quake which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and entirely destroyed the historical mud and clay Silk Road city of Bam.

Cold night ahead

Amid the rubble tens of thousands of residents braced themselves for another night in the cold while others were reported to be pouring out fearing aftershocks.

As night fell many people were bedding down in the open among the palm groves around the ruined town despite statements from Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari that homeless survivors should be in tents by Saturday night.

The first major international supplies of emergency aid were still many hours from reaching the disaster zone. 

An aerial view of flattened buildings
in Bam a day after the quake

As they waited for support to reach them, Iranian rescuers continued to dig for survivors and the deceased among the rubble.

Rescue worker Omid Alipour had been given a luminous jacket but no shovel.

After a whole night clawing away at the levelled remnants of the ancient Silk Road city of Bam, shattered by a violent pre-dawn earthquake on Friday, he sheepishly admitted his team had only recovered three injured from the rubble.

 "There are probably 20,000 still buried under the ruins," an exhausted, dust-covered Alipour said. "We don't have anything, just our bare hands."

Help arriving

The official IRNA news agency reported an international
sniffer dog team had recovered 20 people alive from the debris.

Alipour's team may just have had their bare hands but they had no shortage of help.

Blood clinics in Tehran are overwhelmed by a rush of eager donors. Collection centres for food and blankets are being set  up across the capital. But for so many people, it was too late.

Hundreds of bodies have already been tipped into broad trenches hollowed out by mechanical diggers. Cemeteries were crammed to overflowing with fully-clothed corpses and the stench of death was beginning to pervade the streets.

Iranians reach out for food in Bam

"I live in Shiraz. After hearing about the earthquake, I got on a bus and within hours I was here," recounted 47-year-old Mahmud Galandari as he stared at the collapsed home.

Under the rubble, he says, are the remains of his brothers, sisters, their spouses and children.

"They're all dead," he muttered, as another body was hauled from under the rubble, wrapped in a blanket and neatly laid out on the street by Iranian Red Crescent workers who appear happy to let the bulldozer do the digging.

"And if they're not dead, they will be when that machine gets to them."

Fatimah, 35, was burying her two children. "I am burying myself in this grave," she said.

Taher, 50, was inconsolable, sobbing "wake up, wake up" to the body of his teenage son Farzad.

"I am burying myself in this grave,"

Fatimah, 35, interring her two children

A large UN cargo aircraft carrying aid equipment is due to leave southern Italy for Iran on Sunday carrying 40 tonnes of tents, tarpaulins, blankets, generators and water purification tablets, donated by Italy and Norway.

The Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it would require 20,000 large tents, 30,000 plastic tarpaulins, 200,000 blankets and 30 kerosene generators.

The Red Cross in Geneva appealed for almost 10 million euros ($12 million) to provide aid to some 200,000 people over a six-month period. 

Reacting to the rising toll, the European Union announced it had nearly tripled its humanitarian aid to 2.3 million euros (2.9 million dollars). 

Global teams

An Imam leads prayers at a grave
as others bury their dead (behind)

The international aid and equipment will be dispatched across the region in coordination with local authorities, said Madeleine Moulin, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The UN said the teams would include medical staff and specialist teams who would work with sniffer dogs to help pull survivors from the debris. 

"To our knowledge, there are currently teams from around 20 countries on the ground or about to arrive," Moulin told AFP.

Iran has said it will accept aid from all countries except Israel.

By Saturday, Iran's neighbour Turkey, also prone to earthquakes, had sent dozens of rescuers and medical workers and tonnes of humanitarian supplies.

Two planes of Russian aid arrived late on Friday.

Jordan was preparing to send a military field hospital to Bam, while a Jordanian humanitarian organisation was organising a shipment of food supplies, tents, blankets and medicine. 

A Kuwaiti medical team will leave for Iran on Sunday to provide medical assistance.

Up to 120 Austrian rescue workers were to leave Vienna for Iran on Saturday, in addition to the experts and sniffer dogs already there.