Death toll in Chile quake rises to 700 as British aid teams head to disaster zone

THE president of Chile said last night that Saturday's earthquake killed at least 708 people – sharply increasing the known death toll.

Michelle Bachelet told a news conference that the country faces "a catastrophe of such unthinkable magnitude that it will require a giant effort" for Chile to recover.

Officials earlier said about 300 were feared dead following the magnitude 8.8 quake.

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The news came as a major aid effort involving British agencies swung into action to help survivors of the quake which sparked a Pacific-wide tsunami.

Around 1.5 million Chileans were affected by the tremors, which caused buildings and roads to collapse and left 500,000 homes severely damaged. But fears that a tsunami would wreak further havoc proved unfounded.

Following the initial tsunami alert for 53 nations and territories, hundreds of thousands of people fled inland as fears were raised the Pacific region could fall victim to the type of devastating waves that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day in 2004.

But waves that made ground were understood to have reached a maximum of 6.5ft in Tonga and New Zealand while they barely registered in other countries.

UK aid organisations have been quick to respond to the disaster. A team of water engineers and logisticians from Oxfam is expected to arrive in the country today.

Jeremy Loveless, Oxfam's deputy humanitarian director, said: "Access to the affected area is often difficult during the first 24 hours after an earthquake and it is deeply frustrating that it can take some time to get our staff to where they need to be."