Big earthquake hits Chile, halts some copper mining

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SANTIAGO, Nov 14 (Reuters) A powerful 7.7 quake hit mineral-rich northern Chile on Wednesday, injuring some people, damaging buildings and halting operations at some of the world's biggest copper mines.

Copper prices soared 6 per cent to 3.299 dollar a pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange's COMEX division, as huge copper mines reported they were without power.

The quake made buildings sway hundreds of miles away in neighboring countries and the Chilean capital Santiago.

Officials said one of the hardest hit areas was Tocopilla, 75 miles (120 km) north of coastal mining city Antofagasta.

''One of the most affected zones could be Tocopilla where some houses in the western part of town, which are made of lighter materials, have been affected and we have some injured people,'' Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Harboe said on television.

Television images showed cars crushed under the concrete awning of a hotel in Antofagasta, where power and phone services were knocked out by the quake. Frightened residents stood in the streets.

The United States Geological Service, or USGS, said the quake, 36.7 miles (60 km) deep, was centered 66 miles (106 km) west of the town of Calama and struck at 12:40 p.m. local time (2110 IST).

The quake was initially reported at 7.8 magnitude by the US agency and later verified at 7.7.

Just two hours later, a second quake of 5.7 magnitude struck. The USGS said this quake, 25.5 miles (41 km) deep, was centered 36 miles (58 km) northwest of the town of Antofagasta and struck at 2314 IST.

The second quake, 25.5 miles (41 km) deep, was initially reported at 6.0 magnitude by the agency and later verified at 5.7.

MINES LOSE POWER The quakes hit an area of many large copper mines. Chile is the biggest copper producer in the world, providing more than a third of annual supplies of the red metal.

BHP Billiton said work was paralyzed after power was cut off at its Escondida, Spence and Cerro Colorado copper mines.

Freeport-McMoRan Copper&Gold said operations were halted then resumed at its Candelaria mine in Chile, due to power outages, but its El Abra mine was still down without power.

Chilean state copper miner Codelco said its northern division, including the enormous Chuquicamata mine, was without power.

Big mines in the south of Peru, also a major global metals producer, said operations were not impacted.

Chilean authorities discounted the chances of a tsunami along its Pacific coast after the quake and earlier tsunami warnings elsewhere in the Pacific were lifted.

The earthquake was felt in Peru and Bolivia, Chile's neighbors to the north, and in Santiago, 870 miles (1,400 km) south of the epicenter.

In Bolivia's administrative capital La Paz, a key government building, home to several ministries, was evacuated.

But there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage to infrastructure.

Reuters PY VP0015

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