Lima : The powerful earthquake in Peru may have killed between 400 and 500 people and injured around 1,500, Spanish news agency EFE said quoting Peruvian officials.
A fire department official told the media Thursday that the figure could reach 500, while regional emergency services chief Aristides Mussio in the hardest hit area of Pisco said the latest figure he had at his disposal was 437 fatalities.
Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo told reporters that the fatalities – for the moment – stood at approximately 400.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Development Programme, meanwhile, put the death toll at more than 400 and the injured at well above 1,000.
“So far, the number of dead has risen to 450, with over 1,500 injured and at least 377 houses destroyed,” the UN’s emergency relief official, Margaret Wahlstrom, said in a statement.
The quake – which was originally reported as a 7.5-magnitude, then a 7.9-magnitude, tremor although the Boulder, Colorado-based US Geological Survey (USGS) later revised its measurement to 8.0 on the Richter scale – could be felt strongly all over Peru and in neighbouring countries as well.
The Peruvian cities of Ica, Pisco, Chincha and Cañete were the most affected by the temblor Wednesday evening.
The quake prompted a tsunami alert along South America’s Pacific coast. The epicentre was located at a depth of 40 km and the USGS placed it off the coast at Pisco, some 148 km southwest of Lima and 110 km northwest of Ica.
Pisco, located more than 200 km south of Lima, suffered 70 percent damage and lost all potable water and electricity services besides experiencing severe communications problems, the city’s mayor, Juan Mendoza, told media.
Images broadcast by television showed dozens of bodies scattered in the streets and plazas of Pisco.
Emergency teams focused many of their efforts at the San Clemente church, which collapsed completely during a religious service attended by hundreds of the faithful.
The creation of “an air bridge with Lima to transport the injured and thus help make sure the area hospitals don’t become saturated” was announced.
Among the other structures that gave way during the quake was a church in Ica where another religious service was in progress.
A resident of that city told a TV channel that Ica lost power as a result of the earthquake.
Field hospitals were set up in Ica to care for the injured, with medical personnel forced to work in the dark.
In Chincha, 600 prisoners at the Tambo de Mora prison fled when some of the facility’s walls collapsed and so far only 29 of them have been recaptured.
After the quake, Peru was beset with at least 340 aftershocks, including a magnitude-5.1 tremor, Peru’s Geophysical Institute said.
The director of the Geophysical Institute, Hernando Tavera, said Wednesday night that the temblor was the strongest to strike the central Peruvian coast in the past 50 years.
In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe announced the “partial evacuation” of the southwestern port city of Tumaco in the face of the possible threat of tsunamis.
The area around Paracas National Park was also severely affected by the temblor with a fishing village completely flooded and the main hotel partially destroyed.
Peruvian doctors, who had started a 72-hour strike Wednesday, called off the action and reported to work.
President Alan Garcia arrived in Pisco Thursday to inspect the rescue work and oversee the support being provided to those affected by the quake, and he announced that international aid would begin arriving in Peru very soon.
Offers of assistance have poured in from around the world, including Spain, France, the European Union and Russia.
In a telegram to Peruvian bishops, Pope Benedict XVI called upon “institutions and people of good will” to give the necessary aid to victims of the quake, and said he was “deeply moved by the sad news of the earthquake, which claimed many lives and caused great material damage”.
The United Nations, governments and humanitarian agencies rallied Thursday to assist Peru’s victims, DPA reported.
According to DPA, UN agencies had released $200,000 in emergency funds and were poised to send in a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team as well as search and rescue workers if required. The British charity Oxfam has also sent in teams.
The White House offered US aid, including search and rescue teams, to help Peru deal with the quake aftermath. A US foreign aid team is on the ground in Lima, assessing the damage and working with Peruvian officials, said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesperson.
Switzerland sent in experts, while Spain offered a team of 15 rescuers and four sniffer dogs, said the Geneva-based OCHA.