Tue, Aug 21, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Rescue teams heading home from Peru

AFP, PISCO, PERU

Rescue teams in Peru's shattered earthquake zone were heading home yesterday, as search operations were replaced by stepped-up aid efforts and security patrols against looters.

Last Wednesday's powerful 8.0-magnitude quake killed at least 503 people, and the final toll "could reach 540," civil defense officials said. Some 1,600 people were injured.

Most of the deaths occurred in the town of Pisco, 240km south of the capital Lima.

There, 308 people were confirmed killed -- 160 of them in the town's church, which collapsed during mass.

National police colonel Roger Torres said a further 150 were believed still to be buried in rubble elsewhere in Pisco, an evaluation backed by the odor of decomposing bodies.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia, on Sunday making his third visit to the town, raged against the looting and assaults reported in several affected areas and said he would restore order "whatever the cost."

"I have ordered the use of the harshest measures and if needed to impose a curfew," he told reporters.

More than 1,000 troops and police armed with assault rifles were patrolling the streets of Pisco, 70 percent of which was destroyed.

As security forces were reinforced, teams involved in search and rescue were packing up and returning home. Any hope of finding more survivors had now been extinguished.

"The possibility of finding someone alive is nearly nil," said Jorge Molina, search and rescue operations chief for the fire department.

An offer of yet another rescue team, from Mexico, was rejected by Peru, which instead asked for food, tents, medicine, clothing and water for the estimated 200,000 people left homeless.

A Mexican hospital ship carrying tonnes of such aid left on Sunday for the Peruvian port of San Martin, which it was expected to reach a week later.

Argentina also sent 20 tonnes of similar cargo by plane, and a specialized disaster management team, while Spain sent 30 tonnes of aid.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim came to the disaster zone with 40 tonnes of food, promising to deliver a planeload of medical supplies today.

Meanwhile, a mass grave was being dug at Pisco's cemetery as an "emergency measure," police officer Jose Sanchez said.

Aid workers were also worried about the risk of an outbreak of disease in the town.

Health Minister Carlos Vallejos said some 1,500 doctors and nurses were struggling to prevent the spread of epidemics.

"The problem is not only that there are still unfound bodies, the problem is water," and how human waste is being disposed of, he said.

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