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Chile looters give up quake spoils to avoid arrest

CONCEPCION, Chile (Reuters) - Residents in Chile’s earthquake-ravaged city of Concepcion dumped new televisions, fridges and furniture on roadsides on Sunday to avoid arrest as police prepared to search homes in a crackdown on looters.

A door is seen propped upright, with a placard reading: "Do not pull down", on a destroyed street in Constitucion city, south of Santiago, March 7, 2010. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Alarmed by the arrests of 20 looting suspects, people who had scavenged shops and supermarkets after last week’s earthquake took advantage of a brief amnesty offered by police, who said they were preparing to go door-to-door armed with riot shields and tear gas.

“It was a collective psychosis. They didn’t intend to do harm,” said Humberto Cifuentes, 53, a heavy machinery repairman, standing in his yard looking on as police officers grabbed items left on the street.

“One person went out to steal, and then everyone followed. This was not done out of necessity. I can’t explain it. It was unjustified.”

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Graphic link.reuters.com/dec43j

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Residents in a middle-class, hillside neighborhood in Chile’s second-biggest city watched police, some in riot gear, pick up sofas, stoves, and even crates of liquor, and load them into pickup trucks and a bus.

In the days after the quake, some people armed themselves with sticks and burned tires in front of their homes to deter thieves.

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Police gave residents in Concepcion until midday on Sunday to return looted goods or face arrest, and had recovered dozens of truckloads of goods worth around $2 million stolen in the aftermath of the 8.8-magnitude quake and ensuing tsunamis that killed hundreds and devastated towns and cities.

They filled a gymnasium floor-to-ceiling with boxed goods ranging from fans to chairs to stereos.

Images of looters emptying supermarkets and running off with electrical appliances as well as food shocked many in normally orderly Chile. Looters even set fire to one supermarket in Concepcion after a stand-off with police.

“There’s no water. Aid is not reaching us. People were desperate,” said Gonzalo Munoz, 28, who works at a highway toll booth, as he watched police make an arrest.

“The people were desperate. They grabbed what they could.”

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One man shouted angrily at police, saying his house had been emptied by looters.

“Who is going to answer for this? You?” he screamed, shoving a policeman. Officers then removed a cooker from the back of a police truck to make space, and bundled the arrested man into it.

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and her government have faced widespread criticism from survivors, who say they were too slow to deliver aid and prevent looting amid a series of missteps in the wake of one of the biggest recorded quakes.

“We will make sure the full weight of the law comes down on those who committed these crimes,” Bachelet said on Sunday. “It is important everything is given back, that we put our hands on our hearts and act responsibly.”

Jaime Toha, the senior government official in the central Bio Bio region, said the atmosphere in Concepcion was returning to normal, and slightly eased a week-old curfew.

“After residents of a sector of Concepcion realized that prosecutors and police knew where (looted) goods had been taken, and had arrested some 20 people, many others spontaneously put them in the street to diminish their responsibility,” Toha said as a midday amnesty deadline loomed.

“We have photographs. For those who thought this was a joke -- well it isn’t,” he said.

Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Eric Walsh

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