Freak sandstorm kills at least four in Iran's capital Teheran

TEHERAN (AFP) - A massive sandstorm and record winds killed at least four people in Tehran on Monday, plunging the Iranian capital into darkness, knocking out power supplies, damaging buildings and causing massive disruption.

The freak weather struck at 5.10pm, sending residents dashing for cover as debris swept across streets and snapped trees. State media reported 110 kmh winds.

Forecasters on state television initially warned Teheranis to stay indoors, shortly before the ISNA news agency said the fatalities were caused by falling trees.

Mr Amin Sabernia, Iran's chief emergency official, announced the deaths and said at least 27 people were injured, 10 of them in a road accident when the gloom suddenly descended.

State television later reported that two people injured in the storm were in critical condition.

Almost 7,000 emergency workers were deployed within the hour, city officials said, and Ahad Vazifeh, in charge of government weather forecasts, cautioned of bad weather until Wednesday.

"This is like an apocalyptic Hollywood movie. I'm scared," a woman running into a shop in the capital's central business district to escape the gales told an AFP reporter seconds after the storm hit.

A man inside the same building said: "I've never seen anything like this. I was afraid it was an omen of things to come."

Residents of earthquake-prone Iran usually make such comments when they fear a strong tremor is imminent.

After a 15-minute period of gloom caused by the sandstorm began to lift, rains arrived with winds remaining strong.

Pictures posted on social media showed a giant sand cloud approaching the city, before it turned dark and the outside temperature plunged from 33 deg C to 18 deg C.

An electricity official quoted on ISNA news agency said power had been lost in at least 50,000 homes.

Flights out of Teheran were delayed, Fars news agency said, quoting airport officials.

Internet and telephone services were heavily affected, with lines going down before returning intermittently.

About 90 minutes after the initial storm, the winds appeared to ease and more cars were seen on the streets, although many people opted for caution, staying on in office buildings.

With the storm arriving as people were headed home in rush-hour traffic, road monitoring services showed large areas of Teheran gridlocked shortly after the worst of the weather.

Although the streets seemed largely back to normal by 3pm GMT, the reports of more bad weather were being closely monitored, state television said.