Looters hand back goods as Chile mourns quake dead


CONCEPCION, Chile — Looters in Chile have handed back stolen goods worth two million dollars, the government said, as the country mourned the hundreds killed in last month's earthquake and tsunami.

Pressed by police and military patrols, Chileans returned hundreds of television sets, washing machines and other electronic and furniture items stolen from stores and warehouses.

The looting had broken out in the wake of the devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Chile on February 27.

That and rioting led to curfews and the deployment of some 14,000 soldiers — a move unprecedented since the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that ended in 1990.

President Michelle Bachelet visited a depot of returned goods Sunday, promising justice.

"This looting has nothing to do with survival," Bachelet told journalists, estimating the total value of the objects to be almost two million dollars.

"It had everything to do with people trying to make a profit on the suffering of others," she said, promising to apply the full weight of the law on looters.

Meanwhile, the national blue, red and white flag fluttered at half-mast from buildings across the country at the start of three days of national mourning, in a week in which president-elect Sebastian Pinera was due to be sworn in.

Religious ceremonies, some taking place in the open air, brought Chileans together to remember their dead — now officially estimated at 452 after officials revised down a first toll of 802 when some missing turned up alive.

Many of the nation's 16.8 million inhabitants joined a wave of solidarity alongside public and international aid efforts, and looters handed back stolen goods under threat of arrest.

Demolition and reconstruction efforts have slowly begun in badly-hit areas.

Aid has poured in from across the world but, with severed bridges, fractured freeways and villages washed off the map, the nation has struggled to deliver relief to many, including some two million homeless survivors.

Costs to repair damaged infrastructure, not including repairs on public buildings or damaged ports, would amount to between one billion and 1.2 billion dollars, Sergio Bitar, the minister of public works, estimated on Sunday.

But he added: "Chile's infrastructure held up well."

Bachelet winds up a four-year term on Thursday facing criticism for a slow response to the quake.

More than 60 percent of residents of the capital Santiago believed the government response was "slow or inefficient," according to a survey published in El Mercurio newspaper on Sunday.

Residents of Concepcion have organized sometimes violent protests against the slow trickle of aid, blocking traffic with burning tires and setting shopping centers aflame.

With half a million homes destroyed, sanitary conditions for many of those still on the streets were a growing concern.

"We have cases of gastroenteritis, respiratory problems, and we've had heart problems due to fears caused by recent aftershocks," Carlos Barra, a health center doctor in Concepcion, told AFP.

But despite logistical problems and rainy weather, hot meals were distributed to residents of Concepcion, Talca, Iloca, Constitucion and other towns that are bearing the brunt of the natural disaster.

Aftershocks following the February 27 quake have complicated the rescue efforts, with more than 200 rattling the nation since then, including a 5.5-temblor on Sunday.

Some 80 percent of total electricity supplies were restored by Saturday, officials said as they shortened a curfew in Concepcion from 18 to 13 hours, and reduced curfews in Arauca, Nuble and Bio Bio provinces.

A hastily-organized weekend celebrity-filled telethon meanwhile raised 30 billion pesos (58 million dollars), twice as much as it had aimed for and enough to build 60,000 basic houses.

9 March 2010 — Return to cover.