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Strong aftershocks stun Chile

Photo by Natacha Pisarenko

Photo by Natacha Pisarenko

CONCEPCION, Chile -- The most powerful aftershock in six days sent terrified Chileans fleeing into quake-shattered streets and forced doctors to evacuate some patients from a major hospital on Friday as the nation struggled to comprehend the scope of the disaster that hit it.

People raced into the streets in pajamas as a magnitude-6.0 aftershock struck Concepcion shortly before dawn.

A magnitude-6.6 shock at 6:47 a.m. EST then rattled buildings for nearly a minute.

It was the strongest aftershock since a magnitude-6.9 jolt shortly after Saturday's historic quake and it sent office chairs spilling from upper floor of an already-damaged 22-story building.

Fear of additional damage led officials to evacuate some patients from the regional hospital in downtown Concepcion.

''They sent us all home,'' said 47-year-old Aaron Valenzuela, who hobbled through the street because four toes had been amputated due to an injury he suffered in Saturday's big quake.

Dr. Patricia Correa, who was overseeing the hospital's emergency ward, said her part of the five-story building ''is on the point of collapsing. The walls cracked.''

As a daily curfew meant to halt looting expired at noon, people flooded into the streets of Concepcion and formed lines about 100 long behind an intermittently functioning automatic teller machine, for a rare open pharmacy and at a corner store.

A sign at the shop announced it was out of flour, water, candles, rice, cheese, eggs and diapers, though jam, sugar, coffee and onions remained.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in the capital, Santiago, promising support for Chile.

''The Chilean government is asking for international aid and we will give it,'' he said.

Chile's U.N. Ambassador Heraldo Munoz told a press conference at U.N. headquarters in New York it's estimated that reconstruction ''will cost Chile about $30 billion.''

Amir Dossal, executive director of the U.N. Office for Partnerships, said private donations have begun to arrive, among them $1 million from Wal-Mart and $500,000 from Hewlett Packard.

President Michelle Bachelet, meanwhile, met with her successor, Sebastian Pinera, and they promised to try to avoid letting the March 11 hand-over of power interrupt aid efforts.

''The new government will have an immense challenge,'' Bachelet said.

Officials were still struggling to determine the human toll of the magnitude-8.8 quake, as well as the damage to roads, ports and buildings such as hospitals.

Disaster officials announced they had double-counted at least 271 missing as dead in the hardest-hit part of the country -- an error that would drop the official death toll to about 540 if there were no other mistakes.

But Interior Department officials said that from now on, they would release only the number of dead who had been identified: 279 as of Friday.