Looting chaos amid Chile's ruins

2010-03-02 19:59

Concepción - Armed civilian defence groups and soldiers patrolled the streets of the ruined Chilean city of Concepción on Tuesday after mass looting diverted the desperate race to find survivors of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The government ordered thousands of troops to restore order in the zone hit by the magnitude 8.8 earthquake and extended a curfew after mobs set fire to stores.

The death toll rose to 723 and security fears mounted ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

President Michelle Bachelet said there would be 7 000 troops in Concepción, the city nearest the quake epicentre, and other towns by Tuesday.

A curfew was extended from 08:00 Monday until 12:00Tuesday local time.

Armed self-defence groups set up fires on the night-time streets, darkened by power cuts, in their bid to keep looters away from their homes.

Many people slept outside their homes for a third night however, rattled by new aftershocks. More than 120 tremors with a magnitude greater than 5.0 have struck since Saturday's quake - including a 5.5 jolt before dawn on Tuesday.

Sense of public order

One person was killed as troops and police clamped down on looting on Monday, making 160 arrests.

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

Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende said Concepción was a dangerous city. "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 struggled to hold back angry looters.

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

Even fire stations were ransacked and a medical clinic was pillaged at San Pedro de la Paz, outside Concepción.

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

After touring the disaster zone, President-elect Sebastian Pinera recounted hearing cries for help when he entered a collapsed building not yet reached by rescuers.

Boats like toys in the streets

Teams with heat sensors and sniffer dogs picked through the debris of shattered buildings. Special cameras showed three, perhaps four, survivors trapped in the twisted ruins of one 15-story block that had fallen on its side.

Some two million people are said to be affected by the quake and after initially holding back, Chile appealed for international aid.

The UN humanitarian co-ordination office said Chile had asked for field hospitals, mobile bridges, communications equipment and disaster assessment teams.

The United States, Russia, European Union, Japan and other nations all offered help.

Violence was also reported in the seaside towns and villages engulfed by massive waves that followed the gigantic quake, and immense destruction was becoming apparent, with hundreds of homes simply swept away.

State television reported that more than 300 bodies had been found in the fishing village of Constitucion.

Boats tossed like toys lay in the streets in the town of Talcahuano, where Chilean troops were on patrol.

Communication equipment

The coastal village of Pellehue was virtually razed, about 100 homes had been washed away.

Outside Dichato, another fishing and tourism town, a trawler was perched on a small hill, its nets still on deck.

Aid worker Paula Saez described the situation in Dichato as "catastrophic", with the town cut off by road and residents beginning a fourth day with no outside aid, according to Christian aid group World Vision.

Clinton, who is on a Latin America tour that will include a brief stop in Chile on Tuesday, 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," she said.

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.