Troops battle post-quake unrest

2010-03-02 09:43

Concepcion - Mobs of angry, hungry survivors of the huge Chile earthquake set fire to shops in the devastated city of Concepcion where troops battled to keep order.

The death toll rose to 723 and security fears rose ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday with a promise of aid after the 8.8 magnitude quake and tsunami that hit seaside resorts and villages.

Huge flames and clouds of black smoke billowed out over Chile's second city as rescue teams picked through the debris trying to reach survivors whose anguished cries could be heard through the rubble.

One person was killed as troops and police clamped down on rampant looting, making 160 arrests, Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende said. Violence was also reported in other towns in the quake zone.

President Michelle Bachelet said there would be 7 000 troops in the zone by Tuesday. Alongside the troops, aid pledges also rolled in from around the world, with the European Union offering four million dollars, Japan three million and China one million.

The UN's humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said Chile had asked for field hospitals, mobile bridges, communications equipment and disaster assessment teams.

After touring the disaster zone, President-elect Sebastian Pinera said "the situation is worse than expected" and recounted hearing cries for help when he entered a collapsed building not yet reached by rescuers.

Survivors trapped in twisted ruins

Teams with heat sensors and sniffer dogs picked through the debris of shattered buildings in Concepcion and special cameras showed three, perhaps four, survivors trapped in the twisted ruins of a 15-storey apartment block.

"We'll have to work with the precision of watchmakers," said fire chief Juan Carlos Subercaseaux. "May God help us."

Some two million people, an eighth of Chile's population, are said to be affected by the quake.

Injured people slept out for a third night, still rattled by aftershocks. More than 120 tremors with a magnitude greater than 5.0 have struck Chile since Saturday's quake - one of the most powerful ever recorded.

The deputy interior minister said the government had purchased all food in Concepcion's main supermarkets so it could be distributed for free, and more supplies were being shipped in.

But Pinera said Concepcion was dangerous. "When we have a catastrophe of this magnitude, when there is no electricity and no water, the population... starts losing the sense of public order."

Police and troops tried to hold back angry looters.

Nothing off limits to mobs

"It would be fine if they distributed things, or at least sold them to us," grumbled Carmen Norin, 42.

Frustration overflowed and AFP saw people setting fire to a supermarket and a department store. A volunteer fireman was injured as the roof collapsed while others doused a man who emerged screaming and covered in flames.

Nothing appeared off limits to mobs desperately hunting provisions. Even fire stations were ransacked and a medical clinic was pillaged at San Pedro de la Paz, outside Concepcion.

"We understand that people need to eat, but looting hospitals and clinics... How can we serve our people?" asked Concepcion fire department chief Jaime Jara.

Violence was also reported in the seaside towns and villages engulfed by massive waves that followed the gigantic quake early on Saturday.
State television reported that more than 300 bodies had been found in the swamped fishing village of Constitucion.

A small plane carrying a Chilean aid team from Santiago crashed en route to Concepcion, killing all six people on board.

The US secretary of state, who is on a Latin America tour that will include a brief stop in Chile on Tuesday, said she had spoken with Bachelet and was bringing satellite telephones with her.

"They have asked for communications equipment, some of which I'm bringing on our plane. Other technical equipment will be flown there in addition."

Her spokesperson Philip Crowley said more US aid would be sent and that because of the devastation, Clinton would meet with Bachelet at Santiago airport.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Monday became the first foreign leader to visit since the disaster, expressing solidarity with quake victims as he met with Bachelet briefly at Santiago airport before flying home.

Chile, one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, is better equipped than most to withstand earthquakes, but the damage has still been estimated at up to $30bn, or 20% of its gross domestic product.