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Mexican billionaire sees growth opportunity after earthquake

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MEXICO CITY (AP) - Mexico's richest man, telecom magnate Carlos Slim, said Tuesday that reconstruction from two destructive earthquakes last month will create jobs and spur growth and announced that more than $100 million has been raised for relief efforts.

Tens of thousands of homes and apartments were destroyed and will have to be rebuilt following the Sept. 19 magnitude-7.1 quake, which killed 369 people, and an earlier, even more powerful one that struck in southern Mexico on Sept. 7 with a magnitude of 8.1.

Slim said Mexico City, which was hard-hit by the later quake, should turn in its recovery phase to the kind of high-rise developments he has constructed.

"Even though it was a very sad tragedy ... it will be a big factor in spurring economic activity and employment," Slim said during a news conference called by his charitable foundation.

Slim, who at one time was estimated to be the world's wealthiest person, did not appear concerned about the state of the economy in Mexico, where the peso has fallen nearly 6 percent against the U.S. dollar in the last three weeks.

That drop has been blamed on fears of a possible impasse in renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Slim said World Trade Organization rules that would kick in if the NAFTA talks founder are sufficient.

"The WTO rules are very stimulating for commerce," he said.

Slim said private donors have raised the equivalent of about $22 million for earthquake relief and his foundation matched those donations five to one, for a total of $134 million.

The money will be used for immediate housing and food for quake victims as well as shoring up damaged historic churches and buildings while experts decide how to restore them. The funds will also go to rebuilding hospitals and schools and "constructing better housing, respecting the uses and customs of each place."

That was an apparent reference to the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, which were badly hit by the Sept. 7 quake. There, Slim proposed building small concrete-frame houses - the traditional material is brick or adobe - of about 500 square feet (50 square meters), with enough strength to bear a second-story addition if needed.

He acknowledged that the $7,000 loans the government is offering to people in Oaxaca and Chiapas may not be enough to build such homes, noting "it would be tight" to fit that budget.

Slim called for changes in building regulations to make structures more quake-resistant and said rules should require reinforcement for buildings erected before Mexico's deadly 1985 earthquake, which spurred tighter construction codes.

As for the capital, Slim said the best thing would be for rebuilding to follow the kind of dense, mixed-use and high-rise development that his companies have done in a west-side neighborhood known as New Polanco.

Those shopping centers, museums and offices were built on the site of former factories and are close to apartment towers. Critics have called the developments sterile and cite traffic problems, however.

"It would be ideal if this could be done throughout all of Mexico City," Slim said.

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