Death toll from Chile quake leaps to 700 and counting

Sporadic looting erupts as rescuers work to free those trapped in rubble
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As Chile counted the fast-escalating human and physical cost of the one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history, the country's President, Michelle Bachelet, last night announced that the death toll had leapt to 708.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake, which triggered tsunami warnings throughout the entire Pacific Basin, struck in the early hours of Saturday. The increase in the death toll came as officials revealed as many as 300 people had perished in the small coastal town of Constitucion alone.

President Bachelet called for international help and said the country faced "a catastrophe of such unthinkable magnitude that it will require a giant effort" to recover.

She said she was sending the army into the worst-affected areas as reports came in of residents looting supermarkets, shops, banks and petrol stations. Soldiers will assist local police, who earlier turned looters away with tear gas and water cannon. A night curfew was imposed in the Biobio and Maule regions to counter further possible street unrest.

Government officials worried that as many as 2 million people had been affected or displaced as a result of the catastrophes. Hundreds of thousands of people are still struggling to find shelter, food and drinking water.

While life was returning gradually to something close to normality in Santiago, the capital, reports from cities such as Constitucion and the much larger city of Concepcion revealed widespread damage to buildings, roads and bridges.

Mrs Bachelet said that among the items her country would willingly accept from donors were temporary bridges, field hospitals and water-purification units.

In Concepcion, the closest large metropolis to the epicentre of the quake, rescue workers toiled with jackhammers and small bulldozers to pull residents out of a recently completed 15-storey apartment block that had toppled onto its back. Officials said as many as 80 people remained trapped in the wreckage; 25 people escaped, and four bodies had been taken out.

Most of Chile remained gripped by the drama of freeing the residents of an apartment tower, which fell the moment the earthquake struck. Paulo Klein, leading a group of rescue specialists from the port city of Puerto Montt, said: "It's very difficult working in the dark with aftershocks, and inside it's complicated. The apartments are totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution."

Rosa Molina, 67, said she and her family spent Saturday night outdoors, huddled on the patio of her home in the village of Portozuelo, about 30 miles from the coast. Recalling the moment of the earthquake, she said: "I got out of bed and was immediately knocked to the ground by the shaking. My grandson came and helped me down the stairs and out of the house." She has not dared go back inside, as aftershocks continue to rattle the region.

Mrs Molina said around 60 houses were completely destroyed in her village, and such basics as water and bread were being sold at prices at least four times higher than normal. Ruptured power and water lines as well as impassable roads and bridges spelled days of worsening conditions for survivors in some areas.

The country's main airport began to accept international flights operated by Chile's LAN Airlines. Most of the serious damage in Santiago was visible on older buildings, including churches and the main university. Newer structures, built to stricter anti-seismic codes, suffered mostly cracks and broken windows only.

There was, however, some relief as the tsunami warning for the entire Pacific Basin was lifted, with no major loss of life reported.

The alerts sent hundreds of thousands of people away from their shoreline homes in countries across the Pacific Ocean at the weekend. But even in those places where the danger had seemed elevated, including Hawaii and Japan, the waves, once they arrived, were relatively small and did little damage.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary State, is expected to fly into Santiago this evening to meet Mrs Bachelet. Officials said Mrs Clinton would reiterate the US's offer of aid.