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Death toll passes 700 in Chilean quake

BOGOTA, Chile — Rescuers searched for survivors Sunday, a day after one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history killed more than 700 people while leaving untold numbers missing and 2 million displaced, wounded or otherwise affected.

The death toll jumped Sunday to 708, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote and badly damaged towns.

The 8.8 quake, which hit before dawn Saturday, toppled buildings, buckled freeways and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves washed shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan.

Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas of Chile, where residents were without water or electricity. Crowds overran supermarkets in the port city of Concepcion, which sustained widespread damage, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks also were hit. Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water cannons and made several arrests, mostly of young men.

"The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves," Concepcion resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. "We have money to buy it, but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do?"

Bachelet, following an emergency meeting with her cabinet Sunday, announced she would send army troops into the Concepcion area to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors. She previously declared swaths of the country "catastrophe zones" and Sunday issued an emergency decree for the area that will be in force for 30 days.

State television reported 350 people were killed in the coastal town of Constitucion, near the epicenter.

Bachelet said in an address to the nation Saturday night that a million buildings had been damaged. And with television stations showing topsy-turvy structures, severed bridges and highways whose pavement looked as if it had been tilled by some giant farm machine, the death toll was expected to rise.

As a flurry of 30 aftershocks, some measuring greater than magnitude 6.0, continued to strike the region all day, Chile's Interior Ministry said tsunami surges reaching heights of 10 feet hit the nation's Juan Fernandez Islands, leaving three people dead and 13 missing.

The U.S. moved briskly to offer assistance to Chile. President Obama spoke with Bachelet to offer condolences, praising the country's quick response and reiterating the United States' readiness to aid in rescue and recovery.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she planned to visit the region Sunday. "Our hemisphere comes together in times of crisis, and we will stand side by side with the people of Chile in this emergency," she said.

Some observers, however, worried international relief efforts could be stretched thin by the continuing response to the Haiti earthquake, which left more than 215,000 people dead and a million homeless.

In Chile, television images showed collapsed highway overpasses and buildings in southern Santiago, the capital, and in Concepcion, 300 miles to the south. Bachelet was reported to be headed to the region to inspect the damage.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who will take office in two weeks, told reporters in addition to scores of deaths, the country suffered damage to its infrastructure, including highways, airports and housing.

Santiago's international airport will be closed at least through Monday, officials said. Although the runways are in good condition, the control tower and customs facilities suffered extensive damage, officials said.

Key structures in Santiago, including ministry buildings, suffered heavy damage, said Education Minister Monica Jimenez. Government employees will be asked to stay home Monday as officials assess structural safety, she said. Public schools that were to have reopened Monday after summer vacation are now scheduled to reopen March 8.

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