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Security top priority after quake: Chilean president

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet ordered nearly 14,000 military forces on Tuesday to the regions hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami, vowing not to tolerate looting that followed the disaster.

world Updated: Mar 03, 2010 08:41 IST

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet ordered nearly 14,000 military forces on Tuesday to the regions hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami, vowing not to tolerate looting that followed the disaster.

The official toll from Saturday's quake was raised Tuesday to 795, with most of the fatalities reported in the southern Chilean region of Maule. Bachelet said that the count could continue to rise significantly, with hundreds of people still missing.

Earlier, she had issued a stern warning to looters.

"We perfectly understand the anxiety and the pressing needs of people, but we know there are criminal actions by small groups that are causing enormous material and personal damage," Bachelet said. "We will not accept that."

After meeting with Chilean military chiefs, she said that 11,850 Army troops and 2,131 naval personnel had been deployed to preserve order in the worst-hit Maule and Bio Bio regions.

Aid started to arrive on Tuesday in coastal communities ravaged by the tsunami that followed the quake, including Constitucion, Dichato and Iloca. Three Navy ships were sent to the region.

Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city, had been the scene of unrest and looting but was calmer Tuesday, and an overnight curfew imposed Monday was extended to start at 6 pm.

A convoy of 50 trucks carrying food, fuel and heavy equipment arrived Tuesday in the city under police escort. The military was guarding petrol stations and supermarkets both in Concepcion and smaller towns and villages in southern Chile.

Bachelet said she had no accurate estimates of rebuilding costs, but noted that some experts have made preliminary damage projections of $30 billion.

"I can only say it will be a lot," she said. "Chile has the capacity, we have the engineers, we have the people, we have the experience, we have people trained and all that. But I think it will take long, and it will mean a whole lot of money."

Public transport was operating again, and banks in towns like Chillan and Quirihue opened for the first time since the quake. Difficulties persisted in hospitals, in particular.

"There are colleagues who have been doing shifts for three days," said Alfredo Jerez, director of Las Higueras Hospital in Talcahuano. "They are exhausted."

The Chilean government launched the distribution of aid through the school system.

"We are going to send 240,000 meals today and 600,000 meals per day in the coming days," Education Minister Monica Jimenez said.

After meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bachelet said that the government would be assessing needs before calling for international aid.

"Our objective is that cooperation will exactly meet and respond to our needs, our most urgent needs," she said.

Clinton herself delivered a batch of satellite phones to help Chilean officials working to respond to the disaster.

Washington is sending water purification units and a field hospital with surgical facilities, dialysis machines and other medical supplies, Clinton said. Electric generators and portable bridges are also being brought.

In New York, United Nations officials said that Santiago had made specific requests for help but sought no flash appeal for donations.

"The Chilean government is in the driver's seat," UN Assistant Secretary General Catherine Bragg said. "At this point, the government is on top of the situation. They are handling the situation well. It's a strong government with strong institutions."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on Tuesday asked for $6.4 million to support the Chilean Red Cross Society to assist 15,000 affected families.

The Red Cross said the money will go to purchase relief supplies, tents, tarpaulins, a field hospital, generators, water and sanitation equipment for the next six months.

The quake at a historic 8.8-magnitude, was felt along 1,600 km across Chile.

A pair of Tuesday aftershocks registered 5.5 magnitude, complicating rescue efforts. Search teams had to suspend their work overnight because of the danger to workers in unstable rubble, Concepcion fire captain Juan Carlos Subercaseux said.