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Military Called to Peru to Stop Post-Earthquake Looting

Peru sent hundreds more soldiers Saturday to areas devastated by an earthquake, seeking to quell looting and theft as delays in aid distribution increased the desperation of tens of thousands of survivors.

Military trucks carrying supplies were swarmed by dozens of people in the port city of Pisco, and survivors fought over cans of tuna and cartons of milk. In a soccer stadium, more than 500 people lined up at a lone truck that passed out packets of crackers, candy and toilet paper. When the food ran out, people rushed the truck screaming that they had not yet eaten.

President Alan Garcia vowed to re-establish order in areas hit by Wednesday's magnitude-8 quake "regardless of what it costs."

"Whoever tries to cause a disturbance is going to face the consequences," Garcia told reporters, as the government deployed an additional 1,000 soldiers to area.

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Authorities set up a number of food distribution points in Pisco but very little aid seemed to be arriving to the estimated 80,000 people affected by the quake.

At one end of a soccer field, a half dozen makeshift shelters of cardboard and blankets held up by wooden poles protected families who had lost everything.

"It is very cold at night and we don't have blankets. We don't have water. The tents have not arrived," said Maria Tataja, 38, who was sharing an open-fronted shelter with nine other people. She shivered in the cool, damp ocean breeze.

Responding to criticism that aid was not arriving quickly enough, Jorge del Castillo, Garcia's Cabinet chief, told El Comerico newspaper said that all planes available were now being used to ferry supplies to the victims. Immediately after the quake, many of the aircraft were used to carry the injured to Lima, he said.

Miguel Soto, a police officer keeping guard in the stadium, said many trucks with food simply were not getting through.

He said food donated by one Lima district had been sacked on the traffic-clogged highway before it could reach Pisco. "These are just people taking advantage."

Defense Minister Allan Wagner told The Associated Press on Saturday in Pisco that the death toll had risen to 540, up from the previous figure of 510 provided by firefighters.

Destruction was centered in Peru's southern desert, in the oasis city of Ica and in nearby Pisco, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the capital of Lima.

As many as 80 percent of the people in quake-hit urban areas may not have access to clean water and many rural communities still have not been reached to assess the damage, said Dominic Nutt, part of an emergency assessment team in Peru for the aid agency Save the Children.

"The situation is probably worse than first imagined," Nutt said by telephone from Lima.

Wagner said the number of soldiers in Pisco would be increased from 400 to 1,000. The remaining 400 soldiers from the new deployment would go to other areas.

Foreign Commerce Minister Mercedes Araoz said looting continued to be a problem: "We're trying to do something about the highway robbers. ... The army is heading to the area now to control it."

Hopes of finding more survivors diminished. At least 1,500 people were injured and Garcia said at least 80,000 people had suffered the quake's impact through the loss of loved ones or destroyed or damaged homes.

Paul Wooster, coordinator of the Rapid UK Rescue team from Gloucester, England, said rescuers were using sound detectors and infrared cameras to search mountains of rubble. The latest survivor to be discovered, a man, was pulled from the rubble at midday Friday.

"We always work on a four-day window and I'm talking realistically. So we are still looking for survivors but there's not much more time," Wooster said.

Motorcycle taxi driver Marco Coila said he had moved his family out of Pisco to a village where they hoped to find more food, but found little there.

"There is nothing to eat. There is a lot of looting going on," Coila said.

S. Ward Casscells, assistant U.S. secretary of defense for health affairs, arrived Saturday in Pisco to assess the needs of the population and determine how the United States can help.

The U.S. government has released US$150,000 (euro110,000) in cash to pay for emergency supplies and dispatched medical teams. It also sent two mobile clinics and loaned two helicopters.