By Erik De Castro
LOON, Philippines (Reuters) - The death toll from an earthquake in the Philippines rose to 144 on Wednesday as rescuers dug through the rubble of collapsed buildings including an old church and a hospital.
Nearly 3 million people were affected by the 7.2 magnitude quake on Tuesday, which caused landslides and widespread damage to infrastructure in the tourist destinations of Bohol island and the nearby Cebu islands.
The number of injured rose towards 300, with at least 23 people missing.
The national disaster agency said at least 134 of the dead were on Bohol island, which took the brunt of the quake. The island is located 630 km (390 miles) south of the capital, Manila.
Officials feared the toll would rise as communications with remote areas were re-established.
"I think this is a growing number," Loon mayor Lloyd Lopez told Philippine radio. "Yesterday, we had a partial communications block-out."
"We have not reached all barangays, many are cut off, the roads are blocked by big boulders," Lopez said, referring to villages.
Mobile phone links from the country's main provider had been restored but a rival provider still had to fix some of its damaged equipment, a state telecommunications official said.
Many of the millions hit by the quake spent the night outdoors, including patients at some hospitals, because of aftershocks. More than 840 aftershocks have been recorded, with one of magnitude 5.1, the volcanology agency said.
"There are so many aftershocks, we are afraid," Elena Manuel, a 64-year-old grandmother, told Reuters after her family and neighbors spent the night in the grounds of a centuries-old church that collapsed in Loon, a town of about 43,000 people.
"We don't have any more food and water because stores are closed, and the bridge ... is damaged. After the quake, water and mud came out of cracks on the ground in our backyard."
WARNING TO PROFITEERS
Officials said most of 23 damaged bridges in Bohol were impassable and five roads were closed. Seventeen churches suffered irreparable damage to their old coral-stone structures.
"The church here is now only powder," said Benjamin Aggenstein, a 30-year-old German businessman based in Bohol, adding that most residents of Loon did not want to return to their damaged homes and had been staying outdoors.
Ferry and airline services have resumed despite damage to ports and airports in Bohol and Cebu.
The air force was flying 11 tons of relief supplies to Bohol, a military spokesman said.
President Benigno Aquino, who made an inspection by air of quake-hit areas, warned of stiff penalties for profiteers exploiting the disaster.
The government has declared a state of calamity in both Bohol and Cebu, triggering a freeze on prices there.
Tourism has also been hurt.
Some visitors to Bohol have cancelled reservations, but the damage to tourism was likely to be short-lived, John Patrick Chan, corporate general manager of the Bellevue Hotel group, said in a television interview.
"We expect things to go back to normal soon. We're lucky the earthquake hasn't damaged much, much more," Chan said.
The country's tourism office said it had seen about 1,000 cancellations to Bohol and Cebu by tourists from South Korea.
The last time a quake of similar magnitude hit Bohol was in 1602, said Trixie Angeles, a consultant at the National Commission on Culture and the Arts.
(This story is refiled to correct grammar in fourth paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco in MANILA; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Robert Birsel)