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Published: Friday, 3/12/2010

7 aftershocks hit Chile, rattle inauguration rite

ASSOCIATED PRESS

SANTIAGO, Chile - A series of strong aftershocks from last month's devastating quake rocked Chile yesterday as a new president was sworn into office and immediately urged coastal residents to move to higher ground in case of a tsunami.

The strongest aftershock had a magnitude of 6.9 - nearly as strong as the quake that devastated Haiti's capital on Jan. 12. The Chilean Navy issued a tsunami warning while the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the aftershocks were too small to cause dangerous waves beyond Chile's central coast.

There were no reports of more deaths, but Chile's key north-south highway suffered more damage in the inland city of Rancagua, and violent waves hit at least two towns along the central Chilean coast, Pichilemu and Bucalemu, according to incoming Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter.

President Sebastian Pinera was inaugurated at a congressional building in coastal Valparaiso before the building was evacuated as a precaution. The seven aftershocks strongly swayed buildings, shook windows, and sent frightened Chileans streaming into the street.

The magnitude-6.9 aftershock is the strongest since the day of the Feb. 27, magnitude-8.8 quake. It occurred along the same fault line, said geophysicist Don Blakeman at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo.

In Valparaiso, people in the balconies of the vast congressional hall shouted warnings as a massive light fixture rocked overhead, and heads of state nervously eyed the ceiling. But a steely calm prevailed, especially from Mr. Pinera himself as he strode in smiling.

The president and his ministers then quickly swore their oaths, and the audience of 2,000 headed for the exits.

In his first remarks as president, Mr. Pinera urged citizens to also heed the Chilean Navy's tsunami warning and seek higher ground. Then he made a show of normality, greeting other presidents for a shortened lunch at the Cerro Castillo summer palace before boarding a helicopter for disaster areas to the south.

"How was your welcome, president?" Mr. Pinera asked Argentina's Cristina Fernandez.

"Moving, moving!" she joked.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, as he arrived for the inauguration, seemed briefly disoriented on the red carpet. Peru's Alan Garcia joked that it gave them "a moment to dance."

Some dignitaries nervously rose from their seats after a quake hit before Mr. Pinera's arrival, but an announcer asked people to remain calm. Outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet sat unperturbed as a large flower arrangement nearby rocked back and forth.

Mr. Pinera said he would go right to work. The billionaire investor, Harvard-trained economist, and airline executive with little patience for bureaucracy planned a working visit yesterday to the coastal city of Constitution, where the tsunami destroyed the scenic downtown, and a late-night Cabinet session.

Chile's first elected right-wing president in 52 years won office promising to improve the economy. Now, he says he'll be Chile's "reconstruction president." His advice to his citizens: "Let's dry our tears and put our hands to work."

On election night, he had vowed to make Chile "the best country in the world," spending billions to accelerate economic growth, create a million jobs in four years, and combat crime, among other things.

Now, reconstruction is his top priority.

Last month's earthquake - the fifth-strongest since 1900 - killed 500 identified victims and potentially hundreds of others, destroyed or heavily damaged at least 500,000 homes, and broke apart highways and hospitals. Repairing infrastructure alone will cost $5 billion, and overall recovery costs could soar above $15 billion.

Mr. Pinera's victory ended a 20-year run for the leftist coalition that led Chile back to democracy after the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and puts the country's relatively small business elite directly in power.

But Mr. Pinera has promised to maintain social programs created by Ms. Bachelet, who leaves office with 84 percent approval ratings.

The new president lacks a legislative majority, so compromises with leftists will be a must, and restive unions have threatened strikes if Mr. Pinera insists on his promise to privatize part of the state-run Codelco mining company, which provides much of the government's revenues.



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