PORTOVIEJO/PEDERNALES, Ecuador Ecuador's earthquake death toll rose to 350 on Monday as rescuers hunted for survivors, victims clamored for aid and looting broke out in the Andean nation's shattered coastal region.
More than 2,000 were also injured in Saturday's 7.8 magnitude quake, which ripped apart buildings and roads and knocked out power along the Pacific coastline.
President Rafael Correa, giving the new tally of fatalities from the town of Portoviejo inside the disaster zone, told Reuters the number of dead had increased to 350 but said he feared the number would rise further.
"Reconstruction will cost billions of dollars," said Correa, as survivors begged him for water.
The normally upbeat socialist president looked deeply moved as he chatted with victims during a tour of the destroyed town in the South American OPEC nation, which was already suffering from the global slump in crude oil prices.
It has been decades since such a strong quake struck Ecuador. In 1979, at least 600 people died and 20,000 were injured in a magnitude 7.7 quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In other parts of Portoviejo, people stole clothes and shoes from wrecked buildings as police tried to control crowds. Armed men robbed two trucks carrying water, clothes and other basics to quake-hit beach locality Pedernales from the city of Guayaquil, authorities said, as fears of looting spread.
To the north in Pedernales, survivors curled up on mattresses or plastic chairs next to flattened homes. Overnight, soldiers and police had patrolled the hot, dark streets while pockets of rescue workers kept searching for survivors.
Earlier, firefighters entered a partially destroyed house to look for three children and a man apparently trapped inside, as a crowd gathered in the darkness to watch.
"My little cousins are inside. Before, there were noises, screams. We must find them," pleaded Isaac, 18, as the firemen combed the debris.
Tents sprang up in the intact stadium to store bodies, treat the injured, and distribute water, food and blankets. Survivors with bruised limbs and bandaged cuts wandered around while the more seriously injured were evacuated to hospitals.
GLOOM FOR ECONOMY
The quake is doubly disastrous for Ecuador as its economic growth was already forecast to be near zero this year due to plunging oil income.
The energy industry appeared largely intact although the main refinery of Esmeraldas was closed as a precaution. However, exports of bananas, flowers, cocoa beans and fish could be slowed by ruined roads and port delays.
Michael Henderson, analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft, said Ecuador was less well equipped to recover than Chile, where a 2010 earthquake caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.
"Whereas Chile's economy was rebounding strongly from the global financial crisis when its own earthquake struck, Ecuador has been slowing sharply recently as lower oil prices depress activity," he said.
"But total damage to assets in dollar terms may be quite a bit lower than in Chile due to the smaller magnitude of the earthquake and the fact that Ecuador is a much poorer country."
The quake could also play into political dynamics ahead of next year's presidential election.
The government's response seemed relatively speedy, with Vice President Jorge Glas - a potential candidate in the February 2017 vote - flying into the disaster zone within hours and Correa coming straight back from a trip in Italy.
But some survivors complained about lack of electricity and supplies, and aid had still not reached some areas.
PRISONERS ON THE RUN
Over 300 aftershocks rattled survivors huddling in the streets, worried that tremors could topple their already cracked homes.
"We're scared of being in the house," said Yamil Faran, 47, surrounded by about 30 people in Portoviejo. "When ... the aftershocks stop, we're going to see if we can repair it."
Some 130 inmates in Portoviejo took advantage of the chaos and destruction to climb over the collapsed walls of the low-security El Rodeo prison, although more than 35 were recaptured.
On Monday, people swarmed into the middle of Portoviejo in search of materials of value among destroyed buildings, including a social security office. Desks and papers lay strewn around as locals carried off aluminum window frames and cables.
"I have to take some advantage from this horrible tragedy. I need money to buy food. There's no water, no light, and my house was destroyed," said Jorge Espinel, 40, who works in the recycling business.
About 13,500 security personnel were mobilized to keep order.
Some $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said. Nearly 400 rescue workers flew in from various Latin American neighbors, along with 83 specialists from Switzerland and Spain.
Two Canadians were among the dead. Jennifer Mawn, 38, and her 12-year-old son, Arthur, died when the roof of their coastal residence collapsed.
Residents on the Galapagos islands, far off Ecuador's coast and home to numerous rare species, said they had not been affected by the quake.
The tremor followed two large and deadly quakes that have struck Japan since Thursday. Both countries are on the seismically active "Ring of Fire" that circles the Pacific, but the U.S. Geological Survey says large quakes separated by such distances would probably not be related.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Diego Ore in Quito, and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish)
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Published Date: Apr 19, 2016 12:16 am | Updated Date: Apr 19, 2016 12:16 am