Santiago (AFP) March 1, 2010
Angry and hungry Chileans set fire to shops in the quake-hit city of Concepcion Monday as President Michelle Bachelet rushed 5,000 extra troops to the disaster zone to maintain order.
Huge flames and clouds of black smoke billowed out over Chile's second largest city even as rescue teams picked through the debris to try to reach survivors whose anguished cries could be heard through the rubble.
The toll from Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami that swept central and southern coastal towns rose to 723 as security fears deepened in Concepcion, the worst-hit urban area.
Troops deployed alongside police and deputy interior minister Patricio Rosende said one person was shot and killed as they clamped down on rampant looting overnight, making 160 arrests.
"When we take account of the troops already in Biobio and Maule there will be by tomorrow 7,000 troops deployed," said Bachelet, as she stepped up efforts to crackdown on the looting and arson.
As aid pledges rolled in from around the world, with the European Union offering four million dollars, Japan three million and China one million, Chile shed its earlier reluctance and said it would now accept outside help.
The UN's humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) in Geneva said it had been sent a list of priorities that included field hospitals, mobile bridges, communications equipment and disaster assessment and coordination 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 rescue teams.
Rescuers 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-story apartment block.
"We'll have to work with the precision of watchmakers," said fire chief Juan Carlos Subercaseaux. "May God help us."
Injured people prepared to sleep out for a third night, still rattled every so often by aftershocks. A staggering 121 with a magnitude greater than 5.0 have come since Saturday's quake -- one of the most powerful ever recorded.
Rosende said the government had purchased all the food in Concepcion's big supermarkets so it could be distributed for free, and a barge and two Chilean air force planes were expected later with more supplies.
But Pinera said the situation in 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 stood guard trying to hold back the looters, fanning anger among the crowd.
"It would be fine if they distributed things, or at least sold them to us," grumbled Carmen Norin, 42.
Anger soon mounted and AFP witnessed looters 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 angry mobs desperately hunting provisions as 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.
The scale of the devastation was still coming to light in seaside towns and villages engulfed by the massive waves that followed not long after the gigantic quake struck at 3:34 am (0634 GMT) Saturday.
State television reported that more than 300 bodies had been found in the swamped fishing village of Constitucion. Some two million people, an eighth of Chile's entire population, were said to be affected.
The government's national emergency response office said the central Maule region was the hardest hit with 544 fatalities and at least 19 others were still missing but didn't break the figures down any further.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 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."
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became the first foreign leader to visit since the disaster, expressing solidarity with the quake victims as he met with Bachelet briefly at Santiago airport before flying home.
Meanwhile, a small plane carrying a Chilean aid team from Santiago crashed en route to Concepcion, killing all six people on board.
Chile, one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, is better equipped than most to withstand earthquakes, but the damage has still been estimated at between 15 and 30 billion dollars, or 10 to 20 percent of its gross domestic product.
Chile's stock market fell more than one percent on Monday, its first trading since the quake.
earlier related report
"It's full, they have water, food, diapers, but the police won't let us go inside," complained one man standing next to the Concepcion supermarket.
The building, its windows shattered, had already been targeted by looters, like many other shops in the city, where a curfew was imposed overnight to try to limit theft and violence.
"It would be fine if they distributed things, or at least sold them to us," said Carmen Norin, 42, standing nearby as police guarded the shop.
Anger boiled over during the day when a group of looters at the Bigger store set fire to the building when they were blocked from entering by the police who fire tear gas at the crowd.
The building's roof collapsed in the fire, injuring a volunteer firefighter.
Chilean troops were deployed alongside police in the city after President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency Sunday in Maule and Biobio regions, a day after a massive 8.8-magnitude quake that killed over 700 people.
Concepcion was placed under curfew from 9:00 pm (0000 GMT) to 6:00 am (0900 GMT) -- the first time such a measure has been imposed in Chile since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990.
The curfew was ordered after hundreds of city residents began raking through the ruins of supermarkets, pulling out everything from food products to televisions.
"Where they looted yesterday, there is nothing left. They took everything in the supermarkets and the pharmacies," said a cashier, 55, who declined to give her name.
"The mayor has set up water distribution point and Radio Biobio is giving out medicine and transmitting information, but we need everything, bread, milk," she added.
At a dairy, a man threw containers of milk from a balcony to a crowd of people below. Next to them, people made off with sacks of flour.
But the crowd quickly scattered as a truck mounted with a water canon pulled up along with an armored car and two buses carrying some 30 policemen dressed in riot gear and brandishing truncheons.
The show of force dispersed the crowd without incident and the police let all but two of the looters make off with the goods they had managed to nab.
"If they have basic foods, milk, flour, water, diapers for babies, the order is to not arrest them," said Carlos Huerino, a police inspector. "But if they have a television, they'll arrest them."
The first troops arrived just before sunset to help enforce a curfew and were met with a generally positive reception by local residents.
"It's good that they've come because there was a lot of disorder," said Norin, pointing out that prisoners had reportedly escaped from the Manzano prison.
On the radio, listeners complained about thefts from their abandoned homes.
Local police chief Eliecer Solar said there was still a shortage of security forces and called for reinforcements.
Overnight, one person was shot and killed in circumstances that were unclear and at least 160 were arrested for violating the curfew.
But by Monday morning, the streets were calm and at a gas station on the edge of the city some 200 cars lined up for gas.
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