Chile imposes curfew as troops deploy to thwart looters

2010-03-03 11:51

THOUSANDS more troops deployed across Chile yesterday as armed vigilantes patrolled neighbourhoods to ward off looters and protect residents already traumatized by a devastating earthquake.

“The thugs have taken over the city. Now we are not afraid of the earthquakes, we’re afraid of the criminals,” Marcelo Rivera, the mayor of Hualpen, told a Chilean radio station.

President Michelle Bachelet doubled the number of troops patrolling the worst-hit areas to 14 000, as people in the second largest city of Concepcion were slapped with an 18-hour curfew.

General Guillermo Ramirez warned: “Military personnel will be present in the streets of Concepcion until midday to maintain public order, and they will not waver in carrying out their duties.”

A similar curfew was also imposed on three other towns badly damaged by Saturday’s 8.8-magnitude quake, which was so strong it triggered a Pacific-wide tsunami and according to a Nasa scientist probably shifted the Earth’s axis.

Bachelet defended her government’s handling of the crisis as the first aid supplies began trickling into the quake-hit areas.

“We understand your urgent suffering, but we also know that these are criminal acts that will not be tolerated,” Bachelet said.

Bachelet said troops had now fanned out with water and food in the hard-hit Maule and Bio Bio river regions, where destruction was vast and looting rampant after Saturday’s temblor, one of the worst on record.

Officially, the quake killed almost 800 people, but the death toll looks set to rise sharply as relief teams reach more isolated areas.

General Bosco Pesse, who is running emergency operations in the Maule region of a quarter million people, told AFP.

“The tsunami affected 200km of coastline, at places sweeping 2 000m inland.

“About 600 people died in this area, but the toll could climb to 1 000.”

In Concepcion, about 500km south of Santiago, hungry, desperate residents roamed the streets looking for food and water.

Across many neighbourhoods, people were taking matters into their own hands, organising self-defence groups, barricading streets and preventing strangers from entering.

Bachelet, outraged at the vandalism after stores were looted and torched, said it was not acceptable that “people have to organize mechanisms for their self-defence, just to hold onto the few possessions that they still have after the earthquake”.

Hualpen mayor Rivera urged the government to send in a contingent of troops, and grimly warned: “If they have to kill, then let them kill.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Santiago yesterday carrying communications equipment and said the United States stood ready to help.

Santiago, mostly built to strict earthquake codes, escaped the worst of the damage. But as journalists and aid workers slowly trekked across damaged roads, the extent of the quake was gradually coming to light.

Two million people, or one-eighth of the population, are said to have been affected.

The temblor razed street after street of homes in the old heart of Talac where entire suburbs are now sleeping rough.

“We’re scared, there are bad people about, so we do guard duty through the night,” said Mario Saabedra, 76, whose wife suffered a diabetic attack in the early hours but refused to go to hospital.

“We have no food or water, and no one, but no one, has come to check on us,” he said.

There is little to no electricity, water supplies are slowly returning for the 200 000 residents, and most shops remain closed.

Rescue efforts also continued for those still trapped in the rubble, but many stories have tragic endings.

Restaurant worker Jorge Recabal in the town of Curanipe said he found a mud-covered body inside the restaurant the day after the earthquake.

“I noticed a pair of sports shoes. I picked up one and there was a leg attached to it. It was a 14-year-old kid,” he said.

Some coastal areas, swamped by the massive tsunami, early on Saturday remained cut off yesterday.

“This part was full of houses. There were more than 100,” said Silvia Aparicio, a community leader, pointing to the beachfront in Pelluhue, turned into a sandy wasteland.

Lieutenant Colonel Julio Sagredo of the national police force said at least 62 bodies were recovered from Curanipe and nearby Chanco and Pelluhue.

“There are still hundreds of missing,” he said.

Rescue workers in Concepcion, meanwhile, pressed on urgently to try to extract seven potential survivors from a toppled apartment building.

Nine people were confirmed dead in the building. But authorities believe seven could still be alive inside, and workers were hoping rescue efforts would not cause the building to cave in.

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