A severe earthquake hit southeast Iran today, killing at least 343 people, the official Pars news agency reported.

More than 500 were reported seriously injured and thousands were homeless.

The quake struck Zarand town and four surrounding villages in Kerman Province before dawn as villagers were sleeping in their stone or mud houses on the morning of a religious holiday.

Air force planes and helicopters, ferried doctors, medical supplies, food and tents to the area, 438 miles southeast of Tehran.

As rescue workers fanned out among the flattened villages, ther were fears that the death toll might rise. The earthquake registered 6.2 on the open-minded Richter scale, the Tehran Geophyrics Center said, striking at 3 a.m. local time and driving residents from their homes into below-freezing weather.

In March, 167 people were killed and 557 injured when an earthquake hit southern Hormozgan Province. A month late a second quake hit south-western Iran, killing 352. In 1962, 10,000 wee killed in a quake 100 miles west of Tehran.

A spokesman for Iran's main relief organization, the Red Lion and Sun, said most of the deaths and injuries in today's quake occurred in three villages situated near the quake's epicenter: Bab-Tanqal, Ghisak and Sarabagh, all of which are situated near Zarand about 62 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Kerman City.

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi ordered the armed forces in the area to help in the rescue efforts, and hundreds of helicopters were dispatched from a huge helicopter center in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, government spokesman said.

Rescue workers said the main problems facing the villagers were the cold and a lack of drinking water. Rainy weather forecast for Wednesday would make the rescue effort more difficult.

The Richter sacle is a measure of ground motion as recorded by seimographs. An increase of one on the scale corresponds to a tenfold increase in magnitude. A quake registering 6 can cause severe damage in a populated area.