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Chile sends 10,000 troops to quash looting

‘We need more police to keep order. Many people here ... are robbing’

Image: Earthquake survivors try to force their way into a supermarket in Concepcion, Chile
Jose Luis Saavedra / Reuters
Earthquake survivors try to force their way into a supermarket as police maintain order in Concepcion, Chile, on Sunday.
  Coastal residents hit hard
Feb. 28: Slammed by the earthquake, then leveled by the tsunami waves that followed, many of Chile's coastal towns saw massive damage.

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  ‘Desperation is on the rise’ in hard-hit city
March 1: Amaro Gomez-Pablos of Chile’s TVN television network tells NBC’s Lester Holt what the conditions are like in Concepcion, just 56 miles southwest of the quake’s epicenter.

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Image: Rescue workers try to enter the bottom floor of a damaged building after an earthquake in Concepcion
  Quake rocks Chile
A devastating magnitude-8.8 earthquake strikes Chile, setting off tsunami warnings across the Pacific Ocean.

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Map shows some of the quake and tsunami destruction across a long stretch of Chile.
A dozen killer earthquakes
Thousands rattle the Earth daily — but only a few cause utter devastation.
NBC, and news services
updated 6:33 a.m. ET March 1, 2010

CONCEPCION, Chile - Chile's government scrambled on Monday to provide aid to thousands of homeless in coastal towns devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunamis as 10,000 troops moved into stricken areas to quell looting.

The government sharply raised the death toll to 711 from Saturday's 8.8-magnitude quake as harrowing scenes of destruction emerged in isolated towns swamped by the giant waves that were triggered by one of the strongest earthquakes in a century.

With many people missing and some communities in the worst-hit central region of the South American country still largely cut off by mangled roads, President Michelle Bachelet said the death toll was certain to rise.

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Surging waves ruined houses and smashed cars in fishing villages on the country's long Pacific coast. In the town of Constitucion alone, about 350 people died, state television quoted emergency officials as saying.

A night-time curfew went into effect in the Maule region and the heavily damaged town of Concepcion, where hundreds of looters ransacked stores for food and other goods. Looting also broke out in parts of the capital, Santiago.

"We don't have water or anything. No one has appeared with help and we need more police to keep order. There are many people here who are robbing," said a 78-year-old woman who identified herself as Ana in the badly hit city of Talca, 155 miles south of Santiago.

In Concepcion, firefighters looking for survivors in a toppled apartment block were forced to pause because of tear gas fired to stop looters, who were wheeling off everything from microwave ovens to canned milk at a damaged supermarket across the street.

Survivors camping along roads took out their frustration on firefighters who were distributing drinking water in thermoses and tea kettles, damaging their vehicles. Police arrested scores of people for looting and violating the curfew.

Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline van Rysselberghe had earlier said the situation there was getting "out of control" due to shortages of basic supplies and called for the national government to help.

Image: Rescue workers try to enter the bottom floor of a damaged building after an earthquake in Concepcion
  Earthquake rocks Chile
A devastating magnitude-8.8 earthquake strikes Chile.

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"We need the army. We can't have people defending their own possessions because it will be the law of the strongest," she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 56 miles northeast of the city of Concepcion at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. ET) on Saturday. The quake shook buildings in Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires, and was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles to the east.

Bachelet said Chile needs field hospitals and temporary bridges, water purification plants and damage assessment experts, as well as rescuers to help relieve workers who have been laboring frantically for more than a day.

To combat looting, Bachelet announced Sunday that essentials on the shelves of major supermarkets would be given away for free, under the supervision of authorities.

The university in Concepcion was among the buildings that caught fire as gas and power lines snapped when the quake hit Saturday. Many streets were littered with rubble, inmates escaped from a nearby prison and police warned that criminals had been robbing banks.

Firefighters in Concepcion were about to lower a rescuer deep into the rubble of a 15-story apartment complex on Sunday when the scent of tear gas fired at looters across the street forced them to interrupt their efforts.

Police officer Jorge Guerra took names of the missing from a stream of tearful relatives and friends. He urged them to be optimistic because about two dozen people had been rescued.

"There are people alive. There are several people who are going to be rescued," he said — though the next people pulled from the wreckage were dead. Dozens more are feared trapped.

"It's sad, but because of the situation you have to confront the robberies and at the same time continue the search," Guerra said.

One woman ran off with a shopping cart piled high with slabs of unwrapped meat and cheese. A shirtless man carried a mattress on his head. Some of the looters pitched rocks at police armored vehicles.

Across the Bio Bio River in the city of San Pedro, looters cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed liquor bottles.

"It was a mob. They looted everything," said police Sgt. Rene Gutierrez, who had his men guarding the now-empty mall. "Now we're only here to protect the building — what's left of the building."

He said police had been slow to reach the looted mall because one bridge over the river was collapsed and the other so damaged they had to move cautiously.

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