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Italy earthquake death toll rises to 287

THIS quake ravaged medieval city took a limping step toward normalcy yesterday as butchers, bakers and other shopkeepers reopened for business and firefighters began entering buildings to grab essential items for the homeless.

Three days after the quake the made the historic center uninhabitable and halted nearly all economic activity, the death toll reached 287, civil protection authorities said last night. Police said the victims including 20 children and teens.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said the government also had increased the sum allocated for emergency aid to €100 million (US$133 million), and that reconstruction would cost several billion euros.

On yet another day punctuated by aftershocks, a particularly sharply felt tremor rocked the quake-stricken area at 9:38 pm. The shaking lasted a minute and was felt in Rome some 110 kilometers away from L'Aquila.

An unoccupied four-story building, heavily damaged in Monday's quake, collapsed in L'Aquila's historic center, Carabinieri military police said.

Italy's National Geophysics Institute said the aftershock registered 4.9 on the Richter-scale.

The strong aftershocks rattled residents - 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.

"It's not much, but without this I would be on the street," said Elena Ruggeri as she showed off the small train compartment with bunk beds she shares with three other people.

New activity was evident across the city, as pharmacies, grocery stores, butchers, and hardware stores began operating, three days after the 6.3-magnitude quake toppled entire blocks of buildings and halted nearly all economic activity.

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 (US$4) a piece.

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."

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, which also have banking services, have been set up in every tent city to provide a means for the displaced victims to access their own accounts, pick up their pensions or receive money, especially from relatives who have emigrated abroad. People can also top off their cell phones.

The mayor of L'Aquila signed an ordinance declaring public and privately owned buildings unfit for habitation - a formality needed for teams to begin assessing the damage, news agencies reported.

While residents have been told not to return to their homes, firefighters who had been digging through the rubble for survivors began entering wrecked buildings Thursday to retrieve essential items like medicine for residents.

"We can't always go in, we only go in if we have an escape route," in case an aftershock hits, said squad leader Giovanni De Carolis.

Giancarlo Rasti persuaded carabinieri police to retrieve a computer containing his son's university thesis. The family was safely in nearby Teramo at the time of the quake, but 25-year-old Michele had a place in L'Aquila, where he studies engineering and is about to graduate.

"It was the most important object for him" Rastelli said. "It has all his data inside."

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.

In Rome, police arrested a man posing as a civil protection worker who was collecting donations for quake relief, the ANSA news agency said.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano toured the quake area yesterday. He stopped at the collapsed student dorm in L'Aquila, visited the nearly leveled small town of Onna, and met with some of the homeless at tent camps.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a Holy Thursday Mass that included the traditional blessing of holy oils - some of which the church will send to the earthquake zone as a sign of closeness to the stricken population.

Benedict was sending his personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, as well as the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to preside over today's funeral services for the victims.

Benedict plans to tour the area sometime after the Easter holiday.


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