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Rescuers and desperate families clawed through the rubble Monday to pull out survivors of an earthquake that killed 350 people and destroyed towns in a tourist area of Ecuador.
Tearful relatives looking for loved ones grabbed chunks of debris with their bare hands as they joined in the search alongside stretched firefighting teams.
Foreign countries meanwhile dispatched rescue teams to aid the search and medical units to treat the thousands of people injured.
In towns such as Manta and Portoviejo on the Pacific coast, the stench of rotting bodies filled the tropical air among heaps of rubble and twisted metal.
“My husband is under there,” said Veronica Paladines, 24, tearing at a mound of debris that used to be a hotel in Manta, with tears flooding down her cheeks.
Her 25-year-old spouse, Javier Sangucho, the father of their two young children, worked at the property as a painter.
“He had just gone down to rest a bit when it happened,” his wife told AFP.
The government on Monday raised the death toll from the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck the oil-producing South American nation late Saturday.
“Sadly we have to inform you that there are about 350 people killed. The number of peopled injured has also risen” from an earlier toll of 2,068, said Security Minister Cesar Navas, without giving a precise figure.
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Guillaume Long said via Twitter that experienced rescuers were arriving from Switzerland, Spain, and other Latin American countries including Mexico and Peru. Cuba said it was sending a medical brigade to treat victims.
The Spanish Red Cross said in a statement it estimated that up to 100,000 people would need assistance.
Navas said authorities were sending food and water to the devastated areas.
In Portoviejo, a city 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the coast, the quake knocked down walls in a prison, allowing 100 inmates to escape.
Some were recaptured or returned later, but police were hunting for the others, Justice Minister Ledy Zuniga tweeted.
– State of emergency –
President Correa visited the disaster zone on Sunday after cutting short an official trip to the Vatican.
He said the toll would “certainly rise and probably in a considerable way” in the hours ahead.
“There are still lots of bodies in the rubble,” he warned. “These are extremely difficult times, the biggest tragedy in the last 67 years.”
He was referring to an August 1949 earthquake near the central Ecuadoran city of Ambato that killed some 5,000 people.
Among the worst-hit towns in Saturday’s quake was Pedernales, where Mayor Gabriel Alcivar estimated there were up to 400 more dead yet to be confirmed, many buried under the rubble of collapsed hotels.
Soldiers patrolled the beach town, and the Red Cross and the army opened a field hospital and a makeshift morgue at the local stadium.
“Here in Pedernales survivors have been rescued among the rubble and we are not losing hope that more will be found,” Ecuador’s Vice President Jorge Glas, who visited the town, told AFP.
– Ring of Fire –
In Calderon, near Portoviejo, 73-year-old resident Nelly, who would not give her last name, told AFP in tears that she rushed into the street after the earthquake and saw that the covered market had collapsed.
“There was a person trapped who screamed for help, but then the screaming stopped. Oh, it was terrible,” she said.
Foreigners killed by the quake include two Canadians and five Colombians, officials said. A Catholic missionary nun from Northern Ireland was killed along with three trainee nuns at a school, her religious congregation said.
Ecuador’s Geophysical Office reported considerable structural damage as far away as Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city with more than two million people, 350 kilometers (220 miles) from the center of the quake.
The capital Quito, farther inland from the center of the quake, escaped with cracked walls and power outages, and the country’s strategic oil facilities appeared unscathed, officials said.
Although Ecuador frequently suffers seismic shudders because of its position on the Pacific rim’s “Ring of Fire”, the weekend’s quake — which lasted a full minute — was the worst in nearly 40 years.
Ecuador has been rocked by seven earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher in the region of Saturday’s quake since 1900, the US Geological Survey said. One in March 1987 killed about 1,000 people.
International sympathy and offers of help flowed in.
Pope Francis urged prayers for the victims.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union chief diplomat Federica Mogherini expressed condolences and said they were ready to help.
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