Troops battle post-quake unrest in Chile

Mobs of angry, hungry survivors of the huge Chile earthquake have set fire to shops in the devastated city of Concepción as troops battle to keep order.

The death toll rose to 723 and security fears ballooned ahead of a Tuesday visit by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with a promise of aid after the magnitude-8,8 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 in 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 $4-million, Japan $3-million and China $1-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.

Teams with heat sensors and sniffer dogs picked through the debris of shattered buildings in Concepción 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.”

Supplies being shipped in
About 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 five have struck Chile since Saturday’s quake—one of the most powerful ever recorded—including a 5,5 temblor before dawn Tuesday.

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.

But Pinera said the city 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.

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

Frustration overflowed and Agence France-Presse 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 Concepción.

“We understand that people need to eat, but looting hospitals and clinics ... How can we serve our people?” asked Concepción 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, and immense destruction there was becoming apparent, with many homes simply swept away.

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

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

Outside Dichato, a fishing trawler sat nestled atop a small hill, its nets still on deck, recalling images of the killer tsunami that inundated Asian coastlines in 2004.

Aid worker Paula Saez described the situation in Dichato as “catastrophic”, with the fishing and tourist village cut off by road and residents beginning a fourth day since the disaster 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 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 $30-billion, or 20% of its gross domestic product.—AFP

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