The search for survivors after two massive earthquakes in Iran has been called off, Iranian state television reported Sunday.

The quakes, which rattled the northeastern part of the country Saturday, are estimated to have killed at least 250 people and injured more than 2,600.

By Sunday, state television reported that search operations had ceased and that the government was shifting its focus to providing shelter to those affected, as well as removing debris.

Iranian officials said the search was cancelled because the affected areas are rural and sparsely populated.

The quakes, which had magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.3 respectively, hit just 11 minutes apart and levelled at least 20 villages, said state television.

Following the quakes, around 36 aftershocks rippled through the same area, jolting residents. The aftershocks were felt in a vast region near the Caspian Sea.

Ahmad Reza Shajiei, a senior government official in charge of the rescue operations, said more than 5,000 tents have been erected to accommodate those who lost their homes to the quakes. He estimates that there are more than 16,000 people requiring shelter.

Images broadcast on Iran’s state news channel after the quake depicted families sleeping on blankets in public parks in the mountainous region, near neighbouring Azerbaijan. Family members cried and shivered in the frosty weather.

State television reported that 44,000 packages of food and thousands of blankets have been distributed to the needy in the stricken area.

Television images also showed people being removed from the rubble on stretchers, while others were treated in hospital for broken limbs and concussions.

Both the United States, which is at odds with Iran over its nuclear program, and the United Nations said Sunday they are ready to offer assistance.

Christine South, operations support manager with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said while Iran has not asked for outside help to deal with the crisis, the country has a strong network of volunteers and relief workers given that it is located in an earthquake-prone region.

“They have a lot of relief workers, they have good search-and-rescue equipment, they have trained staff on the ground and they have huge stocks in warehouse of relief goods,” South told CTV News Channel.

According to South, the Iranian Red Crescent Society was active from theoutset with locally based search-and-rescue teams, search dogs, helicopters and vehicles and other equipment to help with the initial search for survivors.

The agency also sent dozens of volunteers and staff from other parts of the country to help.

South said the challenge with Saturday’s quakes is that they occurred in a rural area, which kept the death toll down, but also makes it difficult for crews to reach everyone affected.

But while the IFRC says Iran is equipped to handle the aftermath of earthquakes, Iran-based journalist Ghanbar Naderi told CTV News Channel Sunday that residents of Tehran are concerned about the government’s ability to handle the growing crisis, or another quake.

Iran is located on seismic fault lines making it prone to earthquakes. The country experiences at least one earthquake a day on average, although the majority of the quakes are too small to be noticeable.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when the next earthquake will strike,” said Naderi speaking from Tehran. “We are pretty much sure that we don’t have the necessity and capacity means to defend ourselves for the next major quake.”

Naderi said because the region that was struck by the quakes was a rural region, the death toll has not been as high as past quakes.

In 2003, approximately 26,000 people were killed by a magnitude 6.6 quake that destroyed much of the historic southeastern city of Bam.

Naderi said the Iranian government has given no indication they will ask for other countries to help with the rescue and recovery phase – something he believes they should do.

“I think this has something to do with national security or the fact that the government has come to the conclusion that it can control the situation on the ground,” he said.

“This is about the humanitarian effort and not about politics.”

Residents: ‘It felt like it was the end of the world’

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the first quake occurred at 4:53 p.m. Saturday, had a magnitude of 6.4 and struck 60 kilometres northeast of the city of Tabriz at a depth of 9.9 kilometres.

Crisis Committee chief Khalil Saei told state television that the epicenter was a region between the towns of Ahar and Haris, around 500 kilometres northwest of Tehran.

The second quake had a magnitude of 6.3 and struck just 11 minutes after the first, said the USGS. Its epicenter was 48 kilometres northeast of Tabriz at a depth of 9.8 kilometres.

The quakes rocked the towns of Ahar, Haris and Varzaqan in the East Azerbaijan province.

Residents of the affected areas recalled the harrowing experience.

"The moment the earthquake hit, it was like a snake biting from underground. It was the worst experience of my life," said resident Morteza Javid.

"The walls were shaking and moving from side to side. It took about a minute before I could run out of the house," Javid said. "Seconds before the earthquake, crows were making a lot of noise, but I didn't understand why. It was only after the quake that I learned the crows were warning us."

Javid, 47, told the Associated Press he drove more than a dozen injured people to hospitals throughout the night.

Naimeh Alapour said that when she first felt the earthquake, she ran out of her home without the mandatory Islamic covering.

The 35-year-old lives in Tabriz, the provincial capital which lies about 50 kilometres from the epicenter of the earthquake.

"I simply took my kid and ran down the steps. The elevator was out of service. I don't know how I walked nine floors down. It felt like this was the end of the world," she said.

With files from The Associated Press