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Earthquake-hit city takes first shaky steps back to normality

THE quake-ravaged medieval city of L'Aquila, Italy, took a step toward normalcy yesterday as some shopkeepers reopened for business, three days after a deadly earthquake made the historic center uninhabitable and halted nearly all economic activity.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said the death toll from Italy's worst quake in three decades had reached 279, including 20 children and teenagers. The government also has increased the sum allocated for emergency aid to 100 million euros (US$132.73 million) while Berlusconi said quake reconstruction will cost several billion euros.

Strong aftershocks rattled residents on Wednesday night ?? nearly 18,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the stricken region. An additional 10,000 have been put up in seaside hotels, out of the quake zone, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L'Aquila's main train station, where nearly 700 people spent the night.

New activity was evident across the city, as pharmacies, grocery stores, butchers, and hardware stores began operating.

Antonio Nardecchia opened up his family's meat stall selling roasted chickens and sausages just outside the crumbled walls of L'Aquila's historic center. The 32-year-old said business was slow.

"We opened up today to try to sell some meat before it spoils," Nardecchia said. "I don't see much of a future. It is not like everything is going to start again tomorrow."

A bakery in a one-story cement block building was a testament to survival amid semi-collapsed houses.

Inside, Evelina Cruciani, 59, made sandwiches with thick slices of freshly baked bread, ham and mozzarella cheese, and gave them to hungry aid workers or sold them to others less in need for 3 euros each.

She also sold a seasonal specialty, small loaves of sweet bread traditionally eaten on Easter Sunday with salami. "We need to keep tradition alive," Cruciani said resolutely. "L'Aquila must not die."

Because of the bakery's sturdy construction, Cruciani has been able to keep the doors open ever since Monday's 6.3-magnitude quake while the owners baked bread in ovens at a facility nearby. Yesterday, the bakery got its first deliveries of fresh milk and yoghurt.

Not everyone was able to escape the predawn temblor with their wallets, meaning some in the tent cities needed to rely on aid until they could get access to their belongings or bank accounts.

Mobile post offices have been set up in every tent city to provide a means for the displaced victims to access their accounts, pick up their pensions and top up their cell phones.

Anti-looting patrols have increased in the quake zone; some residents stayed in cars near their homes to keep watch all the same. Berlusconi on Wednesday said stiffer anti-looting measures would be introduced amid reports the problem was on the rise.


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