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Death Toll in Italy Quake Reaches 260

L'AQUILA, Italy -- Aftershocks from the earthquake that has killed at least 260 people in central Italy sent new fears through the tent camps that shelter thousands of survivors, and Pope Benedict XVI said Wednesday that he would visit the shocked and injured people of the area as soon as possible.

As rescue teams pressed ahead with their searches in the crumbled buildings, some of the almost 28,000 left homeless emerged from tents after spending a second night in chilly mountain temperatures.

"I slept so badly because I kept feeling the aftershocks," said Daniela Nunut at one of the tent camps set up across the city of L'Aquila.

The 46-year Romanian-born woman said she and her companion plan to stay in the tent for now. "What can you do? You can't go into the building."The magnitude-6.3 quake hit L'Aquila and several towns in central Italy early Monday, leveling buildings and reducing entire blocks to piles of rubble and dust.

The pope praised the relief operations as an example of how solidarity can help overcome "even the most painful trials."

"As soon as possible I hope to visit you," Benedict said Wednesday at the Vatican.

The Vatican said he would make the trip after Easter Sunday and that he does not want to interfere with relief operations.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said 260 people have died, including 16 children. The premier, speaking in L'Aquila after a third day in the quake area, said nine bodies remained to be identified. He said about 100 injured were in serious condition.

Berlusconi said looting in the quake zone was on the rise and that the government was looking to increase penalties for the crime. He said details were still being worked out, adding the new penalties would be "very severe."

A funeral for the victims is scheduled for Friday morning, and is to be conducted by L'Aquila Bishop Giuseppe Molinari, the premier said. At least one victim's funeral was going to be held Wednesday in one of the small villages in the stricken area.

Berlusconi said about 17,700 people left homeless by the quake had found shelter in tent camps set up by authorities. An additional 10,000 people were housed in hotels along the coast, bringing the overall number of homeless to almost 28,000.

Fifteen people remain missing, officials said.

The ANSA news agency reported that four students trapped in the rubble of a dormitory of the University of L'Aquila had died.

By Tuesday evening, rescue crews gave up painstakingly removing debris from the dormitory by hand and brought in huge pincers that pulled off parts of the roof, balconies and walls, showering debris down.

"Unless there is a miracle, I've been told (by rescuers) that they probably are dead," university rector Ferdinando Di Orio said.

Since the quake early Monday, some 430 aftershocks have rumbled through, including some strong ones, said Marco Olivieri of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome.

A strong aftershock at 7:47 p.m. Tuesday rained debris on screaming residents and rescue crews, who ran from the site.

Many survivors at the camp said they had been cold during the night as heaters in some of the tents were not working. Some read a newspaper as they lined up for hot coffee or tea and a croissant.

To shelter the homeless against the chilly nights in the mountains, about 20 tent cities have sprouted in open spaces around L'Aquila and surrounding towns. Field kitchens, medical supplies - and clowns with bubbles to entertain traumatized children - were brought in.

Officials estimated Monday that 50,000 people had been left homeless by the quake. By Tuesday evening, that number was lowered to between 17,000 and 25,000, because many moved in with friends or relatives.

Rescue workers continuing their search still held out hope to find somebody alive. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the rescue efforts would likely continue until Easter Sunday, beyond the period originally indicated by Berlusconi.

"It all depends on the conditions, if the person under the rubble has any air or water," Cristian Martinez, from the Spanish rescue organization Unidad Canina, said as his dogs ran across a pile of rubble that had once been a four-story building in L'Aquila.

Martinez explained that his dogs, which have been sent across the world after quakes and other catastrophes, "would bark if they found a live body and would start digging if they found a dead body."

So far, the dogs had found no signs of any living human beings in the debris.

"But we don't give up hope," said Martinez, adding that his dogs had once found somebody alive 11 days after a quake in Pakistan.

On Tuesday, rescue officials pulled a young woman alive from a collapsed building about 42 hours after the main quake struck the mountainous region.

Eleonora Calesini, a 20-year-old student, was found alive in the ruins of the five-story building in central L'Aquila.

Officials said some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed in the 26 cities, towns and villages around L'Aquila, a city of 70,000 that is the regional capital of Abruzzo.

Teams started inspecting some buildings still standing Wednesday, including an 18th-century church in downtown L'Aquila, which had been damaged in the quake. Teams also began surveying houses to see if residents can move back in, Berlusconi said.

Associated Press Writer Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.


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