Foreign rescuers begin to leave Christchurch

CHRISTCHURCH, March 4, 2011 (AFP) - International rescue crews began pulling out of Christchurch after emergency operations in the stricken city shifted from finding earthquake survivors to recovering bodies, officials said Friday.

More than 400 urban search and rescue specialists from around the world rushed to New Zealand's second largest city after last week's 6.3-magnitude quake flattened office buildings, killing scores of people.

They combed the city's ruins with sensitive listening devices and sniffer dogs but found no signs of life after February 23, a day after the deadly tremor, when a woman was pulled from the rubble.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key helps out the Farmy Army (New Zealand Volunteer Farmers) at Linwood College as he surveys earthquake damage in the Christchurch suburb of Bexley on March 4, 2011. AFP

A team from Taiwan flew home Thursday, the same day officials declared there was no longer any hope of finding anyone alive.

"Some of the other teams are in discussions about how long they will stay," a New Zealand fire service spokeswoman said, adding some may remain for weeks.

She said more than 140 personnel from Australia were being withdrawn but Canberra was sending a new contingent to replace them.

Japan has 67 rescuers helping what has now become a grim search for bodies, Singapore 56, China 10, Britain 64 and the United States about 80.

The death toll stood at 163 Friday, but there was a little solace for the shattered city as officials said they expected a final tally to be "in excess of 200", down from previous estimates of 240 and 220.

Officials estimate rebuilding Christchurch will take at least a decade but Prime Minister John Key said the immediate priority was looking after people who have endured more than a week without sewerage, power and other services.

"You can appreciate what they are going through -- basic things like toilets, water and power are necessities of life," he said after meeting exhausted residents in some of the worst-hit suburbs.

Mafutaga Manuleleua said she was concerned about the health of her children, who were traumatised by the quake and had been forced to relieve themselves in the garden.

"I need to be strong for my children but it's not easy," she told national news agency NZPA.

"The thing we need the most is water to get everything clean. We're feeling left out and I'm worried that after this everyone is going to get sick."

With meteorologists predicting a cold snap and heavy rain over the weekend, emergency crews worked to patch up damaged houses with tarpaulins and provide for those forced to flee their homes.

Civil defence said a "tent city" capable of housing 400 people was being sent from Australia.

Mobile shower blocks were also being erected and more than 1,000 portable toilets had been installed around the city, with the majority being shipped in from the United States.

Other residents have been given camping-style chemical toilets for their homes, while the city's coast has been declared off limits after the council was forced pump raw sewage into the sea.

Many will have no jobs to go to when the crisis is eventually lifted, with the government revealing Friday that 2,700 people in the city had already signed up for emergency unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, seismologists said two large tremors measuring 4.5 and 4.7 in the capital this week were unrelated to the Christchurch catastrophe and were not a precursor to another major quake.

"It's just a bit of a coincidence," GeoNet seismologist John Ristau said.

"They're not any indication that there's anything bigger coming for Wellington in the near future."

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