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Chile troops, police attack post-quake looting

Monday, March 1, 2010 | 4:38 p.m. CST; updated 4:51 p.m. CST, Monday, March 1, 2010
A woman carries goods while looting a supermarket in Concepcion, Chile, on Sunday. A 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit Chile early Saturday. Officers arrested 55 people for violating a nighttime curfew imposed after looters sacked almost every market in town on Sunday.

CONCEPCION, Chile — Rescuers found signs of life in the wreckage of a 15-story building Monday as the world offered aid to victims of an earthquake that killed more than 700 people. Looters roamed the streets even after troops and police arrested dozens of people for violating a curfew.

The toll of dead rose to 723, with 19 others missing, the National Emergency Office announced, in a magnitude-8.8 quake that President Michelle Bachelet called "an emergency without parallel in Chile's history."

Some coastal towns were almost obliterated — first shaken by the quake, then slammed by a tsunami that carried whole houses inland and crushed others into piles of sticks. Shocked survivors were left without power, water or food.

In Concepcion, the biggest city near the epicenter, rescuers heard the knock of trapped victims inside a toppled 70-unit apartment building and began to drill through thick walls to reach them, said fire department Commander Juan Carlos Subercaseux.

Only the chop of military helicopters flying overhead broke the silence demanded by rescuers straining to hear signs of life inside the building.

Firefighters had already pulled 25 survivors and nine bodies from the structure.

Mayor Jacqueline van Rysselberghe told Radio Cooperativa that some food aid was arriving in the city of 200,000 Monday for distribution to the hungry.

Electricity was still out, however, water was scarce and looters re-emerged at dusk despite beefed-up security. Dozens of people sacked stores selling food, clothing and drugs, fleeing when police appeared to drive them away. Some struck gas stations, stealing cash from attendants.

As a small military convoy drove down the main avenue, bystanders applauded and shouted, "Finally! Finally!"

Eliecer Soler, Concepcion police chief, said officers arrested 55 people for violating a nighttime curfew imposed after looters sacked nearly every market in town Sunday. Troops ordered into the city by Bachelet patrolled to enforce security. A few looters re-emerged to rob a market Monday.

Spanish Professor Eduardo Aundez watched with disgust as a soldier patiently waited for looters to rummage through a downtown store, then lobbed two tear gas canisters into the rubble to get them out.

"I feel abandoned" by authorities, he said. "We believe the government didn't take the necessary measures in time, and now supplies of food and water are going to be much more complicated."

The U.N. said Monday that it would rush aid deliveries to Chile after Bachelet appealed for international aid. U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centers.

"We are prepared to provide assistance," Byrs told The Associated Press in Geneva. "It could be quite fast, given that our experts are on standby and were alerted in the region."

The World Health Organization said it expected the death toll to rise in the coming days as communications improve. For survivors, it said access to health services will be a major challenge and noted that indigenous people living in adobe homes were most at risk from heavily damaged infrastructure.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also offered to provide disaster aid. Traveling in Uruguay, Clinton said she would bring some communications equipment when she visits Chile on Tuesday.

Argentina said it was sending six aircraft loaded with a field hospital, 55 doctors and water treatment plants.

Bachelet ordered troops to help deliver food, water and blankets and clear rubble from roads, and she urged power companies to restore service first to hospitals, health clinics and shelters. Field hospitals were planned for hard-hit Concepcion, Talca and Curico.

Bachelet also ordered authorities to quickly identify the dead and return them to their families to ensure "the dignified burials that they deserve."

Defense Minister Francisco Vidal acknowledged the navy's mistake of not immediately activating a tsunami warning after the quake hit before dawn Saturday. However, port captains in several coastal towns did, saving what Vidal called hundreds of lives.

Thirty minutes passed between the quake and a wave that inundated coastal towns, leaving behind sticks, scraps of metal and masonry houses ripped in two. A beachside carnival in the village of Lloca was swamped in the tsunami. A carousel was twisted on its side and a Ferris wheel rose above the muddy wreckage.

Officials said at least eight people died and eight were missing on Robinson Crusoe Island, where the tsunami drove the sea almost 2 miles into the town of San Juan Bautista.

Efforts to determine the full scope of destruction were undermined by an endless string of terrifying aftershocks that turned more buildings into rubble — and forced thousands to set up tents in parks and grassy highway medians.

"If you're inside your house, the furniture moves," said Monica Aviles, pulling a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the cold as she sat next to a fire across the street from her apartment building.

As if to punctuate her fear, an aftershock set off shuddering and groaning sounds for blocks around.

"That's why we're here," she said.


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