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Clinton brings phones, promises to Chile

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SANTIAGO, Chile -- 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 on 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," Mrs. Clinton said during a brief visit that took her nowhere near areas with heavy damage. She spent most of her time at the airport, which appeared unscathed.

Mrs. Clinton gave one of the phones directly to 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 Mrs. Clinton said is "ready to go."

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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, Mrs. 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, Mrs. 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 Ms. Bachelet, who is nearing the end of her term in office.

Distribution of supplies is being done, Ms. 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."

Ms. Bachelet said it is impossible to know the extent of damage now, but that one estimate is that is 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," Ms. Bachelet said.

At the airport, Mrs. Clinton was also meeting with President-elect Sebastian Pinera.

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 already have 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.

Brazilian 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, too, said it was sending in a hospital and doctors with 15 tons of blankets and tents.

Little destruction was visible from the air as Mrs. Clinton's plane descended. At the airport itself, pallets of various types of assistance were stacked in front of some hangars, and one military transport plane landed shortly after Mrs. Clinton's U.S. Air Force jet.

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

She 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 of Port-au-Prince in January.

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.

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

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

Santiago is the second major earthquake zone Mr. 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.

In addition, since she became secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton has been present in at least three foreign countries -- Honduras, Japan and Pakistan -- when they were struck by quakes or strong aftershocks.