QAZVIN, IRAN, JUNE 22 -- Rescue crews searched for survivors and unearthed more victims today in the rubble left by a massive earthquake that devastated northwestern Iran Thursday. Iran's official news agency said nearly 29,000 had been confirmed killed by the quake, but Iranian diplomats said the government estimated that 40,000 had died.

Government helicopters flew food and medical supplies into the hardest-hit areas in Gilan and Zanjan provinces near the Caspian Sea. Trucks brought cranes and other heavy equipment over twisting mountain roads to clear away debris in the area, where fragile mud-and-straw buildings collapsed and killed thousands.

Iran's military chiefs of staff ordered all three armed forces to assist in the recovery effort, and military helicopters began around-the-clock shuttles between the capital and the affected area, about 150 miles to the northwest. More than 3,000 tons of relief supplies were flown to the region in 50 trips by air force transport planes, the Iranian news agency IRNA reported. IRNA said 6,000 people were pulled from rubble and airlifted to hospitals.

In Geneva, the International Red Cross said radio reports received from the Red Crescent Society of Iran indicated that at least 400,000 were homeless in northern Iran, according to the AP. The Red Crescent is the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross.

Offers of aid came from nations around the globe, including such longstanding foes of Iran as the United States, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

{The first shipment of U.S. aid -- $225,000 in "digging out" equipment -- could be flown to Iran as early as Saturday, a State Department spokeman said today in Washington. It would be the first American aid to Iran since its fundamentalist government took power in 1979 after toppling the U.S.-supported monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Story on A20.}

"Israel is very sorry for the grave natural disaster in Iran and is prepared to give the Iranians immediate aid as it has done for various other nations," Eliza Goren, a spokeswoman for Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, told the AP in Jerusalem.

Iran reportedly said humanitarian aid would be welcomed from all nations except South Africa and Israel.

Dr. Mark Heller, a top researcher at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said no one really expected the offer to be accepted.

The first team of French doctors arrived Thursday, only hours after the quake, and opened a center to treat the wounded.

The French government promised to send a civil defense team of 195 people and 18 search dogs, along with 24 tons of equipment, the Associated Press reported.

A plane loaded with British relief supplies was scheduled to fly to Tehran over the weekend. A 17-member, non-government British relief team has already flown to Tehran carrying ultrasonic listening equipment and thermal cameras to help the search for buried survivors, according to the Reuter news agency.

President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iran would rely mainly on its own resources to deal with the emergency but said that the magnitude of the disaster dictated that he accept international aid as well.

"The catastrophe is so serious," Rafsanjani told IRNA. "International help is needed. We should accept the help that is offered."

Hospitals in the provincial capitals of Rasht and Zanjan overflowed with victims.

Tehran Radio said some of the injured were flown 600 miles from the disaster zone for treatment.

Rafsanjani toured the quake zone by helicopter and told Iranian television the reported death toll would likely rise as more rubble is cleared away.

Gilan province and adjoining Zanjan have a population of about 4 million people.

Rafsanjani said his country's greatest need in coping with the disaster was for heavy equipment, especially cranes to lift huge pieces of debris.

Iranian officials also told the Swiss-based League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that they needed medicine, tents, blankets, food, trucks, cranes and bulldozers, Reuter reported.

The quake, which hit at 12:35 a.m. Thursday while people across Iran were watching the World Cup soccer matches on television from Italy, measured between 7.3 and 7.7 on the Richter scale, according to monitoring stations in Iran, the United States and Scotland. It was the deadliest in Iranian history and the worst worldwide since a 1976 earthquake killed 240,000 people in China's Tangshan province.

IRNA reported that 28,950 were known dead and 28,198 injured as of 8:30 a.m. EDT today. But the United Nations mission in New York estimated 40,000 dead and more than 100,000 injured, according to the Associated Press.

Dazed residents of Zanjan province today recalled with horror the first moments of the quake, which reportedly lasted almost a minute and was followed by several aftershocks.

"I was awakened suddenly by an unbelievable rumble, looked up and saw that the stars were hitting each other," said Asghar Musavi, 21, a student and farmer from Sumeh-Bar, a village of 400 people in the Tarem Valley about 160 miles northwest of Tehran.

Because he was sleeping on an outdoor balcony, Musavi said he was able to jump six feet to the ground and safety. A neighbor had a closer call.

"The sharp and unpleasant sound of bamboo crushing woke me," said the man, who did not give his name. "Then came the creaking of wooden beams in the ceiling, which support the layer of bamboo, which in turn supports the dirt {dried mud} on the roof. I will never forget those ominous sounds."

"Electricity has not reached us yet and there was no moonlight; imagine the confusion that followed in the dark," said Hamid Musavi, 30, a Tehran auto worker who rushed to Sumeh-Bar to help his relatives. "My nephew, thinking his mother has already escaped, helped others for hours, only to learn in dismay that his mother was trapped {and killed} at home."

Here in Qazvin, survivors sat in the open at sunset yesterday, fearing that another quake would hit when they ventured indoors. Families sat on lawns, eating their evening meals, as black flags of mourning waved in the main street.

Iranian television showed doctors tending victims on stretchers in a makeshift hospital in a parking lot.

Workers uncovered the head of a survivor in the ruins of his home and used a hypodermic syringe to pass water from a canteen to his mouth before digging further. Much of the television coverage was so graphic that viewers with heart problems were warned not to watch.

The dirt roads leading from Tehran through twisting mountain passes into the hardest-hit areas of Zanjan province were clogged with ambulances, buses and trucks carrying heavy equipment, rescue crews, food and supplies for those who lived through the quake.

"After dawn, rescue choppers and ambulances arrived bringing supplies and taking injured, so far 10 from our village. My uncle with rib problems turned away from the chopper, seeing cases worse than his," Musavi said.

"I do not know how we all are going to start up again from scratch, yet I am satisfied with whatever God's will is," said an old man as he tried to pull his half-buried, kerosene-fueled refrigerator out of the rubble.

At Manjil in Gilan province, Parvin Nemati clutched the headless body of one daughter wrapped in a blanket. Her husband and relief workers unearthed the body of another daughter, 10-year-old Fatemeh, an Iranian correspondent told Reuter.

A man in Roudbar told Iranian television "a rock as big as a building" crashed into his home, killing four of his six children. His wife said she lay in the ruins for hours with one of the surviving children beside her.

"There is not a single house in this area which has been left standing," farmer Ali Mohammadi said in Roudbar.

Tehran airport was thronged with people trying to reach the quake zone to learn the fate of relatives.

Eagerness to help the quake victims was evident in several areas of the capital. At midday in busy Vali Asr square, dozens of people were lined up to donate blood, and the food, blankets and clothing were being collected in fron of the city's many mosques.

Though the quake was felt in Tehran, no injuries and no damage worse than broken windows were reported by Tehran radio.

The government's reaction to the disaster was generally seen as swift and effective. Said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified: "Among the diplomats I've talked to, no one has suggested that {the Iranians} were slow off the mark."