Chile deploys troops to contain chaos after earthquake

Weeks after the Feb. 27 earthquake hit Chile, a blackout affected millions of residents Sunday. The country is trying to recover from the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country last month and caused a tsunami that damaged the country's coastal region and put other countries throughout the Pacific on alert. Strong aftershocks hit the country March 5 and again March 11.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Security forces struggled to contain looting and clashes in this country's second-largest city on Monday, as tens of thousands of Chileans who lost their homes in Saturday's earthquake camped out in the streets and waited for relief.

More than 10,000 troops have been deployed to patrol the city of Concepcion and outlying areas devastated by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake. But even as the first contingents fanned out on foot and in army tanks, they seemed largely unable to contain the chaos. In Concepcion, looters set fire to a department store and supermarket, and a massive cloud of black smoke billowed over the city.

Francisco Vidal, the Chilean defense minister, announced that the government would impose curfews through Tuesday in a desperate attempt to control looting, and the mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, made a desperate plea for more troops and aid from the national government.

"Fear is everywhere. Armed men with pistols are attacking residential homes," van Rysselberghe told reporters, adding that even firefighters trying to distribute water had been attacked. "Send the largest number of troops possible."

After initially declining to request foreign aid, President Michelle Bachelet on Monday officially sought assistance from the United Nations. Chilean officials called on the international community to donate temporary bridges, satellite phone equipment, water-purification systems, dialysis machines and electric generators.

The Chilean foreign minister, Mariano Fernández, met with ambassadors to Chile on Monday to coordinate the aid. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will discuss aid efforts with Bachelet when she arrives in Santiago on Tuesday.

Clinton, who began a week-long South American tour on Sunday, told reporters traveling with her that she was bringing 20 satellite phones and a technician on her plane in response to the Chileans' request for communications equipment. She said she was continuing with a previously planned stop in Chile -- to be held just at the airport -- in order "to assess whatever else they might need and immediately to begin the process of providing it."

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Chile has also requested a field hospital and water-purification systems.

More than 700 people have been confirmed killed so far in the quake. The State Department estimated that about 18,000 U.S. citizens are in Chile, with about 1,000 in the hardest-hit area, but only "two minor injuries" have been reported, according to Crowley.

Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, told reporters that the United Nations is sending satellite phones to Chile and is prepared to send 30 tons of food and other aid if the government needs it.

The earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded, hit southern Chile at the peak of the summer tourist season. The coastal community of Constitucion, home to 50,000 residents, was packed with tourists for "Noche Veneciana," a summer festival, when the ground started to shake. Waves estimated at 30 feet drowned the town.

Residents scoured the wreckage Monday in search of family members. Offshore, houses bobbed in the surf.

The scene was more chaotic elsewhere. In San Pedro de la Paz, a city next to Concepcion, looters stripped a clinic clean of medicine and supplies. Chilean National Television said there had been "neighbor versus neighbor" fighting in the coastal areas of Coronel and Lota, in Concepcion province. Food shortages were reported in many parts of the country, and electricity outages remained widespread.

In the heavily damaged city of Concepcion, rescue workers continued to dig through the rubble in an effort to reach survivors inside a 14-story building that toppled over during the earthquake.

"I crawled through a hole, up a few meters. There was screaming. It was so dark, all I could see was a distant light," said Alex Tapia, an Ecuadoran citizen who crawled from the remains of his sixth-story apartment with his wife and child when the building collapsed. "We crawled out through that tunnel. People were trapped and yelling for help."

In a grim effort to identify victims, firefighters at the scene placed a guitar, saxophone and two laptops on the sidewalk and asked family members to help identify the now-deceased owners. More than half the apartments in the building, which was just one year old, were empty, which dramatically lessened the death toll.

With autumn rains just weeks away, Chilean officials scrambled to organize housing for the estimated 1 million to 2 million Chileans who are now homeless.

Limited air service began at Santiago's international airport, with a flight from Miami and Brazil landing Monday morning. But bus service in the country remained limited, even as thousands of people attempted to head south in search of missing relatives.

-- Special to The Washington Post

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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