3 Mar 2010

Chile steps up search for victims of quake

10:36 pm on 3 March 2010

Rescue crews in Chile fanned out with sniffer dogs around quake-ravaged cities and villages on Wednesday, still hoping to find survivors while others began the grim task of recovering bodies buried under mountains of rubble.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit at 3.34am (local time) on Saturday, with its epicentre 115km north-east of Chile's second city Concepcion.

So far, 795 people have been confirmed dead, either killed by one of the world's biggest earthquakes in a century or the tsunami it triggered along Chile's coastline.

Police and troops have managed to quell looting and violence that brought chaos to the hard-hit city of Concepcion, but an 18-hour curfew remains in place, Reuters reports.

Locals desperate for food and water swarmed soldiers as an army helicopter touched down in Constitucion, which was hit by three tsunamis set off by the quake.

It is one of a handful of cities and villages where some 7,000 soldiers are patrolling the streets to keep order and ensure that food and water are properly distributed.

Rescue crews have intensified the search in towns from Concepcion further north to Constitucion for any survivors trapped in the debris.

The death toll could still rise as teams reach other coastal districts, where some towns and villages are reported to have been destroyed.

Reports from the resort town of Pelluhue suggest a series of tsunamis swept through, destroying houses and claiming many lives.

President Michelle Bachelet appealed for calm in Concepcion and acknowledged that rescue efforts have been slow, in part because of mangled roads, downed bridges and power cuts.

Ms Bachelet said on Tuesday the security situation there had been brought under control. Many of the city's 500,000 inhabitants are short of food and have seen their water and electricity supplies cut off.

International aid

New Zealand is to contribute $500,000 in aid to support Chile in the aftermath the quake.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says though Chile has well-established disaster response systems, the quake is a major catastrophe for a close friend of New Zealand's.

Mr McCully says consideration is also being given to how New Zealand might provide assistance on the ground, although no decisions have yet been made.

Meanwhile, aid supplies have begun arriving, including from Argentina, which is flying a field hospital over the Andes to Chile and has pledged 500,000 litres of drinking water.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew to Santiago and offered his nation's support, as did US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mrs Clinton took a consignment of satellite phones with her after the Chilean government requested communications equipment alongside field hospitals and water purification units.