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Clinton visits quake-hit Chile to offer support

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in earthquake-ravaged Chile on Tuesday to offer the devastated country moral and material support.
Image: Chilean Michelle Bachelet greets Image: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, extends her arms as she is greets Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in Santiago on Tuesday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: news services

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a small dent in Chile's growing needs following a massive earthquake, handing over 25 satellite phones while promising more Tuesday in the country's capital.

"We stand ready to help in any way that the government of Chile asks us to. We want to help Chile who has done so much to help others," Clinton said during a brief visit to Chile that took her nowhere near areas with heavy damage. She spent most of her time at the airport, which appeared unscathed.

Clinton toured an area of the airport where tea, flour and other supplies were being loaded into boxes for shipment to parts of the country where supplies are short.

Meeting with the country's president-elect, Clinton said she is sure Chile is handling the disaster well. She said there has been no discussion of sending U.S. troops to help distribute aid or keep order, as was done in Haiti following the far more deadly earthquake there in January.

Clinton gave one of the donated phones directly to current President Michelle Bachelet, who had said shortly after last week's earthquake in Chile that her country did not need much help from other nations. That changed as the magnitude of the disaster became clear -- power, water, food and medical care are urgent needs in the country's second-largest city Concepcion, and along a coast hit by both the quake and a resulting tsunami.

The United States has pledged additional help, including a field hospital with surgical facilities that Clinton said is "ready to go."

The United States is sending more satellite phones, which work in areas where land lines and cell phone towers are out of commission. Chile identified the phones as a high priority, Clinton said.

Also on the way are eight water purification systems, generators, medical equipment and supplies. Other donations could include mobile kitchens, temporary bridges and helicopters. The amount of such aid will depend on what Chile requests, Clinton said.

"We have these things in our country, but how can we get them to the people if we don't have bridges and roads?" said Bachelet, who is nearing the end of her term in office.

Distribution of supplies is being done, Bachelet added, but "we need to do it very fast and get it to the remotest corners of the country and get it there soon."

If the initial U.S. donation seems small, U.S. officials say it is in part a reflection of Chile's initial reluctance to ask for more. U.S. officials said Chile would not have to repay any U.S. assistance.

Chile's neighbors have already acted.

Argentina on Monday flew in an Air Force C-130 with much of a hospital -- including a surgical and intensive care unit, ambulance and laboratory -- three water treatment plants and power generation units, the military announced.

Five other planeloads of aid were supposed to arrive by Tuesday night.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited Chile on Monday. He said a first planeload of aid would arrive Tuesday, followed later by a full army field hospital.

Peru said it was sending a mobile hospital and doctors with 15 tons of blankets and tents.

Bachelet said it is impossible to know the extent of damage now, but that one estimate is that it will cost $30 billion to rebuild.

With 2 million people affected and 500,000 homes damaged, "I can only say it will be a lot," Bachelet said.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera said the disaster has not canceled his plans for economic expansion. He did not directly criticize the current government for what others have called a slow response.

"This is not the time to cast blame or say that anything has been done wrong," Pinera said. "This is a time to provide solutions."

Clinton noted that the quake, which has killed more than 700 people, was 800 times more powerful than the one that leveled much of the Haitian capital in January.

"I come with the great sympathy and support of President Obama and the American people," Clinton said.

Chile, which lies along a major fault line, prides itself on engineering expertise in the design and construction of buildings and other infrastructure that can withstand quakes. The country sent some of its top earthquake specialists to Haiti following the quake there.

Clinton said the Chilean government is responding with "resilience and strength."

Before the weekend quake struck, Clinton had planned a longer stay in Chile, but she only spent a few hours there before heading to Brazil. Clinton is in the midst of a weeklong, six-nation tour of Latin America that has taken her already to Uruguay and Argentina.

Santiago is the second major earthquake zone Clinton has visited in the past two months. Four days after the Haitian earthquake, she was on the ground at the Port-au-Prince airport, meeting with Haitian officials and assessing damage with disaster relief experts.