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Thousands evacuated, 12 dead in Chile blaze

VALPARAISO, Chile--More than 8,000 people were evacuated Sunday as an army of firefighters battled a killer blaze that tore through parts of Chile's historic port of Valparaiso and left at least 12 people dead.

The fire, which started in woodland Saturday, gutted 500 homes as flames advanced on the city of 270,000, famed for its UNESCO-listed center with cobblestone streets and brightly painted wooden homes.

So far, that fabled historic center itself has been spared the worst. But for the city as a whole, the worst was far from over, authorities said.

“We are in what remains an emergency situation ... and it is a complicated situation,” Defense Minister Jorge Burgos told Radio Cooperativa.

The hillside neighborhoods of Ramaditas, Pajonal and Mariposas were hard hit by wind-whipped flames.

“It is a terrible tragedy, without doubt the worst fire in the history of Valparaiso,” President Michelle Bachelet declared after arriving in the hilly port city to oversee the emergency response.

“Families have not only lost their homes and their possessions but also their family memories,” she lamented during a tour of the worst-hit areas.

The cause of the inferno remains under investigation. Bachelet has declared the area a disaster zone, allowing the armed forces to assist in relief efforts and oversee the evacuation of thousands.

Police had said 16 were killed but then revised the toll downward, citing confusion between the numbers released by police and those given by city officials.

It was the second mass evacuation carried out in Valparaiso in as many weeks after the city was at the center of a tsunami alert following a magnitude 8.2 earthquake on April 1.

The stench of smoke and charred wood shrouded Valparaiso as dawn broke, with firefighters working to battle the flames

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