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Chile mourns quake dead

07 marca, 2010

Quake-hit Chile begins three days of mourning Sunday for the hundreds killed in last week\'s disaster with flags lowered across the country in tribute to the dead.

Eight days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake, officials have almost halved the initial death toll, revising it from 802 to 452, after finding that missing people had been listed as dead in several parts of Chile.

But half a million homes were destroyed in the quake, leaving two million homeless, and sanitary conditions for many still living on the streets were a growing concern. Related article: Nation rallies to help victims

"We have cases of gastroenteritis, respiratory problems, and we\'ve had heart problems due to fears caused by recent aftershocks," Carlos Barra, a health center doctor in the badly-hit coastal city of Concepcion told AFP.

In another southern town, Talca, angry residents blocked traffic on Friday with a barricade of burning tires to protest against a lack of official help.

Elsewhere aid was gradually getting through to the quake survivors.

Vaccinations against hepatitis and tetanus have started in the seaside resort of Constitucion, the government said.

Power has been restored to two thirds of the town\'s 50,000 residents after a week in the dark, although only one third have access to running water, city officials said.

In a sign of improving security conditions, Chilean authorities shortened a curfew in Concepcion from 18 to 13 hours on Saturday, and reduced curfews in Arauca, Nuble and Biobio provinces.

Scores of people were arrested in Concepcion Friday night for ignoring the curfews, ordered immediately after the quake to curtail widespread looting.

Police said they had recovered thousands of possessions, from plasma television sets to washing machines and items of furniture, helped by tip-offs from local residents.

Despite being seen as a model of stability in Latin America, Chile struggled to cope with the scale of the catastrophe.

The outgoing government of President Michelle Bachelet -- who is to hand power to Sebastian Pinera, a multi-millionaire right-wing businessman, on Thursday -- has come under fire for its slow response.

Bachelet deployed 14,000 troops in the wake of the disaster, a move unprecedented since the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990.

But the Chilean Navy on Friday sacked the head of the agency in charge of issuing disaster warnings in a recognition of its failings.

Aftershocks have also complicated the rescue efforts, with a 6.8-magnitude tremor on Friday among the strongest of more than 200 to rattle the nation in the quake aftermath.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon vowed to help Chile recover after touring the disaster zone Saturday, including Concepcion and the tsunami-hit port of Talcahuano.

"Words fail to describe my feelings after what I have seen," the UN secretary general told survivors.

Among the sites Ban visited was a downtown area in Concepcion, where a new 15-floor building collapsed on its side during the quake, trapping over 100 residents. Only about 40 people survived.

Ban said he would report his findings to the UN General Assembly and discuss how best to help Chile with reconstruction.

Ban already pledged 10 million dollars in immediate help from the United Nations and helped launch a 24-hour telethon featuring celebrities in a bid to raise 15 billion pesos (29 million dollars) for disaster victims.

The hastily-organised telethon raised twice as much as it aimed for -- 30 billion pesos (58 million dollars) -- enough to build 60,000 basic homes. Related article: Nerves on edge in quake-damaged Chilean hospital

Bachelet said Friday that 35 nations had responded to specific requests for aid, including bottled water from Bolivia, tents from China, French seismic equipment, Russian water cleansers, US sat-phones and pontoons from Sweden.