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Chile begins relief efforts as year's largest quake kills at least 8

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Chile began dispatching emergency crews and assessing damage left by the biggest earthquake in the world this year. At least eight people died and more than a million were evacuated from coastal areas.

[SANTIAGO] Chile began dispatching emergency crews and assessing damage left by the biggest earthquake in the world this year. At least eight people died and more than a million were evacuated from coastal areas.

After authorities lifted a tsunami alert early Thursday, residents of towns in the region of Coquimbo began returning to their homes, hundreds of which had crumbled in the 8.3-magnitude earthquake. Tsunamis caused severe damage to the region's main port, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos said. Major copper mines escaped damage.

"It was the strongest earthquake in the world this year," Mr Burgos told reporters Thursday from the government's emergency agency. "Chileans are used to these types of challenges of nature" and will get through this.

The quake hit at 7.54 pm local time 34 miles (55 kilometres) outside the city of Illapel, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The government declared disaster areas in four cities in the province of Choapa after the tremor, which swayed buildings more than 100 miles away in Chile's capital Santiago.

More than a dozen strong aftershocks were felt, with some shaking neighboring countries, as the first waves hit cities along Chile's central and northern coast. Peru issued a tsunami warning and lifted it an hour later. The disaster brought back memories of an even-stronger 2010 quake that trigged a tsunami that killed hundreds.

"Once again we've been forced to face a tough blow from nature," President Michelle Bachelet said. "Today our main focus is on supporting and helping people."

Chile is one of the most earthquake-prone nations in the world. It was hit by an 8.8-magnitude quake in February 2010 and in 1960 suffered the largest recorded quake, according to the US Geological Survey.

The quake Wednesday was the sixth-strongest in Chile and the world's strongest this year, Undersecretary of the Interior Mahmud Aleuy told a news conference, according to the El Mercurio newspaper.

The official death toll rose to eight, while at least one person is missing, Ricardo Toro, director of emergency agency Onemi, told reporters Thursday. More than 600 people sought shelter in public facilities.

With the country's main highway reopened, authorities dispatched food and other emergency supplies as well as additional police officers and firefighting crews. Power was cut to about 160,000 homes and businesses.

The government plans to provide an update of damage and relief efforts at 10 am local time. US State Department spokesman John Kirby wrote on Twitter that the US was ready to assist Chile if needed.

The quake's epicenter was 142 miles north-northwest of Santiago at a depth of about 16 miles. In 2010, hundreds died in coastal areas after Ms Bachelet's government failed to issue a tsunami alert in the immediate aftermath of the quake. She later received criticism for her inaction.

Speaking just before midnight, Ms Bachelet told reporters that Chileans should brace for aftershocks. The government was suspending classes as it sends help to victims, she said, adding she planned to visit the affected area Thursday.

The waves on Wednesday night reached as high as 15 feet near the northern city of Coquimbo. State television station TVN showed images of cars overturned and homes destroyed by the sea surge.

Copper prices jumped as much as 1.1 per cent to US$5,440.50 a metric ton, the highest level in almost two months, before retreating as miners including state-run Codelco, Anglo American Plc and Antofagasta Plc reported that workers weren't injured and infrastructure appeared not to have been damaged.

Escondida, the world's largest copper mine, suffered no disruptions, according to its operator, BHP Billiton Ltd. Copper was down 0.3 per cent to US$5,365.50 a ton as of 12.07 pm in London. Chile is the world's largest miner of the red metal.

BLOOMBERG