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Troops restore calm after Chile looting

03 marca, 2010

Thousands of troops sent in to quell unrest in Chile\'s second city of Concepcion restored calm Wednesday with the help of a strict curfew, four days after a massive earthquake and tsunami.

As the government raised the toll from Saturday\'s 8.8-magnitude quake to 799, soldiers patrolled overnight to stop the rampant looting and isolated acts of arson that threatened to ruin Chile\'s hard-earned reputation for stability.

President Michelle Bachelet sent 14,000 troops to the disaster zone to prevent violence and help distribute food and medicines around Concepcion and coastal towns like Constitucion where giant waves swept away whole communities.

Authorities raced to help thousands made homeless and hungry and scrambled to defuse an explosive situation in cities and towns where gangs of looters had roamed the streets after one of the strongest earthquakes ever measured.

"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 on Tuesday.

But under curfew and with thousands of troops on the streets, Chile\'s quake-struck second city spent a night without looting and lurched toward normal with restoration electric power and water in some areas.

Traffic lights blinked on and neon signs came back to life as electric power returned to some parts of Concepcion, a city of about 600,000 people located some 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Santiago.

One of the area\'s biggest supermarkets announced it would be opening its doors on Wednesday, as other businesses and stores assessed conditions at their facilities with an eye to reopening.

With armored military vehicles guarding strategic points, food rations were being distributed in orderly way, easing public anxiety over the isolation caused by the quake.

The government extended a curfew from 6:00 pm to noon Wednesday and flooded the city with thousands of troops to restore order in the aftermath of the quake, one of the biggest on record.

Similar curfews were also imposed on six other towns badly damaged by the quake, which is said to have affected two million Chileans, or one-eighth of the population.

On the road out of Concepcion, on Chile\'s wave-raked coastline, small groups of survivors waved Tuesday bits of cardboard on flimsy sticks that said: "We need food, we need water."

"We\'re too afraid to go back there, there\'s a bad smell of corpses and people say there\'s a risk of infection," said Bernarda Loyola, who walked to the pine-covered hills above the popular seaside resort of Constitucion when her souvenir shop was washed away by giant waves.

Some residents have decided to move out of Concepcion and are living in tents pitched in the woods since the quake, which was so strong it triggered a tsunami that crossed the Pacific.

Chile\'s president-elect Sebastian Pinera, who takes office March 11 amid the country\'s worst natural disaster in decades, said the unrest caused by looters was "absolutely unacceptable."

"It simply worsens the already catastrophic situation we\'re in," he said, adding his support for Bachelet\'s efforts to restore order, which have come in for criticism.

"This is not the time to evaluate the performance of the government. This is not the time to cast blame... This is the time to provide solutions, and evaluations can come later."

Bachelet said it was unacceptable that "people have to organize mechanisms for their self-defense, just to hold onto the few possessions that they still have after the earthquake."

On Tuesday, she defended her handling of the crisis as the first aid supplies began trickling into worst-affected areas, and she said troops had fanned out with water and food.

Despite being one of Latin America\'s richest countries, Chile has struggled to cope with the scale of the disaster and appealed for outside aid as it worked to help survivors.

Chile\'s death toll was expected to rise sharply as relief teams reached more isolated areas, including fishing villages and resorts wrecked by huge waves.

"The tsunami affected 200 kilometers (124 miles) of coastline, at places sweeping 2,000 meters inland," General Bosco Pesse, who is running emergency operations in the Maule region of a quarter million people, told AFP. Related article: Rescuers struggle to find missing after Chile quake

"Some 600 people died in this area, but the toll could climb to 1,000."

The situation appeared critical in coastal villages and seaside resorts such as Pulluhue, Cobquecura, Dichato and Constitucion, where tsunami waves obliterated homes and left hundreds dead or missing.

Chilean television showed two army helicopters touching down Tuesday in Constitucion with 2.5 tonnes of aid including canned tuna, tea bags, and milk.