BAM, Iran (Reuters) - Iran said Sunday nearly 2,000 young children rescued from the Bam earthquake and thought to be orphans will not be released to adoptive parents until state officials are sure their natural parents are dead.
An estimated 1,800 children, some just a few months old and others up to about age 10, were found without parents or relatives in the chaotic hours after the December 26 quake destroyed the ancient city and killed at least 30,000 people.
Iranian officials said they had been flooded with requests from people around the world eager to adopt orphans after seeing broadcasts of heart-breaking images of frightened children.
"The priority is to give the orphaned children to family relatives," Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari said.
"But other people will also be considered if they are qualified," he added. "First we have to wait for a period of three months before releasing any orphans for adoption."
Mousavi-Lari told a news conference in Tehran a government minister eager to adopt an orphan himself had urged him to cut through red tape and ask the welfare organization to allow him to adopt a child quickly. The minister was not identified.
"There are a lot of requests from families around the country," Mousavi-Lari said. Officials from the state welfare organization said Sunday at least 2,500 families in Iran had offered to adopt children.
But there have already been several cases where missing, and presumed dead, parents of children taken to a makeshift orphanage outside Bam had later been found alive.
Sometimes the parents had been injured and taken away from Bam for treatment or otherwise got separated from the children in the quake's turmoil. Most of the children were transferred to a state shelter in Kerman, 180 km (110 miles) north of Bam.
CALLS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
"We have had a number of cases in which at least one of the parents of children we thought were orphans have been found," Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani told Reuters. "We have to wait to be absolutely certain."
The quake, which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, killed about one-third of the ancient Silk Road city's population and destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the buildings in Bam, which is 1,000 km (625 miles) southeast of Tehran.
International relief workers have flooded the country to search for survivors still pinned under the rubble and set up temporary shelter for the thousands displaced.
Mousavi-Lari said the rescue phase had ended and about 14,500 people were injured. He said international aid groups, including from the United States, were welcome to take part in all phases of the relief and reconstruction efforts.
The whereabouts of thousands of people is still unknown but Mousavi-Lari said it was not yet clear how many were missing.
A spokeswoman for the state welfare organization in Tehran said they had also received calls from as far away as Canada, Australia and the United States offering to adopt orphans.