Concepcion, Chile: Chile has declared a period of national mourning as divers searched for bodies and discrepancies emerged over a death toll potentially lower than official figures for the killer earthquake and tsunami.
As rescue dogs combed the fetid coastline, where emergency personnel believe huge waves swept hundreds to their deaths, the government said three days of mourning would be observed from Sunday in honor of the quake victims.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday begins a two-day visit to assess the damage and the relief requirements.
The official death toll stands at 802, but President Michelle Bachelet, touring the heart of the disaster zone for the first time five days after the quake, said it included some 200 people who should be listed as missing but were prematurely added to the death toll.
Chile`s Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende, in an apparent attempt to clarify the figures, read out "the complete list of the 279 Chileans who have been fully identified by authorities," although he did not lower the official toll.Related article:Five days after tsunami, food reaches hungry Chileans
Bachelet, who called for the national flag to be hung from each house during the mourning period, predicted it could take up to four years for the South American nation to fully recover from its worst quake in half a century.
The stench of death was everywhere as Bachelet arrived in the country`s hard-hit second city Concepcion to inspect the massive aid operation struggling to get food and water to ravaged areas.
"This is testing us as a nation once again. Chile will get back on its feet. What has happened to us is terrible, of colossal dimensions," Bachelet said as she talked with relief workers.
Thousands of Chilean troops sent to central and southern regions have largely managed to quell the looting that erupted in the wake of Saturday`s 8.8-magnitude quake and ensuing tsunami.
In the small coastal town of Constitucion, vans, cars and small trucks flying the Chilean flag sped around loaded with supplies. "Restoring order and feeding the hungry are our top priority," said Laura Abornoz, Bachelet`s special envoy in the low-lying coastal area, where more and more people were fleeing for higher ground despite government reassurances.
"I want to go home, but my little girls won`t go back," said Andrea Luna Casanova, with her two young daughters by her side. "They cry whenever we mention it. They were terrified by the quake. We live on the seventh floor and it just shook and shook."
A false tsunami alert on Wednesday sent terrified people scrambling for the hills and regular aftershocks as well as a separate 6.3-magnitude quake late Thursday ensured nerves were constantly rattled.Scene: In southern Chile daily life slowly resumes
Bachelet, whose presidency ends March 11, has deployed 14,000 troops and imposed broad curfews in the quake region, an unprecedented move since the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet which ended only in 1990.
She will be replaced by president-elect Sebastian Pinera, who inherits the huge task of rebuilding the South American country. "We will not be the government of the earthquake, but the government of reconstruction," the multi-millionaire businessman vowed a week before his inauguration.
Despite being considered a model of political and economic stability in Latin America, Chile has struggled to cope with catastrophe of this scale. Many of the nation`s lifeline industries, from agriculture and fishing to tourism and trade, were decimated by the disaster. Tonnes of aid has begun to arrive, and the international airport in Santiago which was damaged in the quake -- one of the largest ever recorded -- has now reopened.
International credit rating agency Standard & Poor`s was positive about Chile`s long-term recovery prospects and issued a statement saying it was leaving its 2010 growth forecast unchanged at five percent.
"While we expect a significant hit to growth -- and to the recovery already under way -- in the first half of the year, extensive reconstruction efforts are likely to bolster economic activity thereafter." The International Monetary Fund also predicted that the Chilean economy would continue to rebound after contracting in 2009 due to the global economic crisis.
"The big impact is the immediate humanitarian and social cost," said IMF spokeswoman Caroline Atkinson. Total economic losses from the quake could exceed 15 billion dollars, according to EQECAT and AIR Worldwide, two firms which model the impact of disasters.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to Chileans, 70 percent of whom are Roman Catholic, saying he hoped the disaster "would inspire in everyone feelings of Christian hope and fraternal solidarity to overcome adversity."