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Italy finds quake survivors, but hopes fading

Rescuers used mechanical diggers and their bare hands to search through the night for survivors of Italy's worst quake in three decades which killed more than 150 people yesterday and left tens of thousands homeless.

Some 24 hours after the quake shook the central Italian region of Abruzzo, emergency workers dug out two students early today from collapsed buildings in L'Aquila, the medieval mountain city of 68,000 people worst hit by the disaster.

Rescuers have pulled some 100 people from the rubble but with a further 250 believed missing, civil protection officials said hopes were dimming of finding many more alive.

The quake, measuring between 5.8 and 6.3 on the Richter scale, struck shortly after 3:30 am (0130 GMT) yesterday, catching residents in their sleep and flattening houses, ancient churches and other buildings in 26 cities and towns.

Aftershocks rattled the area, some 100 km (60 miles) east of Rome in the rugged Abruzzo region, well into the night as thousands of people sheltered in their cars and in tent camps.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who declared a national emergency and visited the disaster zone, said at least 150 people had been killed and more than 1,500 injured. The civil protection agency put the number of homeless at up to 50,000.

"It is a serious disaster. Now we must rebuild and that will require huge sums of money," said Berlusconi, whose government already faces a high deficit and huge public debt. He pledged to seek hundreds of million of euros in EU disaster funds.

In L'Aquila, civil protection officials estimated two-thirds of buildings had been ruined. By the glare of floodlights, emergency workers and firemen combed the rubble of a university dormitory, where several students were still believed buried.

Each successful rescue sparked celebrations by anxious relatives and emergency workers, many of them volunteers. A fireman recounted how he pulled a boy alive from the mangled remains of his house after a day-long search.

"All we could see was his head sticking from the rubble, his entire body was buried. We kept digging, picking piece by piece of debris and we finally managed to get him out -- when we did the fatigue was great but so was our joy," he said.


Police patrolled houses ripped open by the quake and arrested several people for looting. Thousands of tents were put up in parks and on football pitches to shelter the homeless for the night and hotels on the Adriatic coast were requisitioned.

"It's been such a hard and long day. Now that we are sitting here in our car it's all beginning to sink in," said L'Aquila resident Piera Colucci as she prepared to sleep in her vehicle.

Berlusconi, already scrambling for funds to cope with an economic crisis, said his cabinet would provide 30 million euros (US$40.60 million) for immediate assistance and vowed to build a new town near L'Aquila in the next two years. He ordered 1,000 troops to the area on Tuesday.

"Tonight don't go back to your houses, it could be dangerous," Berlusconi told residents on state television.

Shaken survivors described the quake striking like a bomb in the night and the anguish of not knowing the fate of loved ones.

"I only remember this huge rumble and then someone dragged me out, but I don't know what happened to my wife and three-year-old son," said 35-year-old Stefano Esposito.

It was Italy's worst earthquake since November 1980, when a quake measuring 6.5 killed 2,735 people. Many of the medieval villages surrounding L'Aquila were virtually flattened.

In Onna, home to some 250 residents, at least 38 people died and more than 40 were missing, according to local civil protection chief Franco Albanesi. Tearful relatives gathered while wooden coffins were placed on communal ground.

As messages of condolences poured in from across the world, Italian politicians put aside rivalries and united in mourning.

But there was still room for controversy. Weeks before, an Italian scientist predicted a major quake around L'Aquila based on the radon gas found in seismically active areas, but he was reported to police for "spreading alarm" and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.

"For weeks they told us to stay calm, that we could live in our houses, that there was no problem. Now we see what the problem was," one female resident of L'Aquila told state TV.


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