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Papua New Guinea says more than 2,000 people buried in landslide


May 27, 2024 09:17 PM

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More than 2,000 people are feared buried in a Papua New Guinea landslide that destroyed a remote highland village, the government said Monday, as it pleaded for international help in the rescue effort.

The once-bustling hillside community in Enga province was almost wiped out when a chunk of Mount Mungalo collapsed early Friday morning, smothering scores of homes and the people sleeping inside them.

"The landslide buried more than 2,000 people alive and caused major destruction to buildings, food gardens and caused major impact on the economic lifeline of the country," Papua New Guinea's national disaster centre said in a letter to the United Nations obtained by AFP.

The main highway to the large Porgera gold mine was "completely blocked", it told the UN resident coordinator's office in the capital Port Moresby.

The landslip was continuing to "shift slowly, posing ongoing danger to both the rescue teams and survivors alike", the letter said.

The scale of the catastrophe required "immediate and collaborative actions from all players", it added, including the army, and national and provincial responders.

The centre also called on the UN to inform Papua New Guinea's development partners "and other international friends" of the crisis.

 'Nobody escaped' 

 The UN is scheduled to hold an online emergency meeting with foreign governments early Tuesday.

They will try to coordinate a relief effort that has been complicated by the remoteness of the site -- which is situated in Papua New Guinea's rugged highlands -- as well as the severed road link and ongoing tribal fighting nearby.

Locals and rescue teams have been using shovels and pieces of wood to find bodies under the landslide -- a mix of car-sized boulders, uprooted trees and churned-up earth that is thought to be up to eight metres (26 feet) deep.

"Nobody escaped. We don't know who died because records are buried," Jacob Sowai, a schoolteacher from a neighbouring village, told AFP.

UN migration agency official Serhan Aktoprak told AFP that the danger was ongoing: "The landmass is still sliding, rocks are falling from the mountain."

Streams of water were flowing between the soil and debris, while cracks were appearing in land adjacent to the landslip, he added.

"This might trigger a further sliding," the UN official warned, posing a "serious risk" both to rescuers and people living in the area.

Australia said Monday that it would provide emergency relief supplies, such as shelters, hygiene kits and support for women and children.

China's President Xi Jinping sent a message of condolences saying he was "deeply sorry" to learn of the disaster and offering assistance.

US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the World Health Organization have also offered support.

The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis, who is due to visit Papua New Guinea in September, "was deeply saddened to learn of the devastation... and he assures everyone affected by the disaster of his spiritual closeness".

Britain's King Charles III offered "heartfelt condolences" in a message expressing "great admiration for the extraordinary resilience of the peoples of Papua New Guinea and the Highlands". 

 'Houses are burning' 

 Locals said the landslip may have been triggered by recent heavy rains.

Papua New Guinea has one of the wettest climates in the world, and research has found shifting rainfall patterns linked to climate change could exacerbate the risk of landslides.

The death toll has been climbing since the disaster struck as officials reassess the size of the population lying beneath mud and rubble spanning almost four football fields in length.

Estimating the toll is difficult because many people fleeing tribal violence have moved into the area in the past few years, said UN Development Programme official Nicholas Booth.

Five bodies and the leg of a sixth had been pulled from the debris by Saturday night.

More than 1,000 people have been displaced by the catastrophe, aid agencies have estimated.

An outbreak of tribal fighting unrelated to the disaster was blocking attempts to bring in humanitarian aid from the provincial capital Wabag, the UN official Aktoprak said.

"Many houses are burning with others emitting smoke. Women and children have been displaced while all the youth and men in the area were carrying bush knives," he said, quoting from a report from an aid convoy attempting to reach the disaster site.

The tribal battles had also delayed the delivery of heavy machinery and diggers.

The area is located about 600 kilometres (370 miles) from Port Moresby.


 People from adjoining villages were helping to unearth bodies, said Nickson Pakea, president of the nearby Porgera Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"Because of the hard rock and the clay, the stone, and the rocks that came in, it is quite messy. It needs excavators to remove the debris," Pakea told AFP.

A nearby mining joint venture, New Porgera Limited, had agreed to provide mechanical diggers to help the rescuers and clear roads, he said.

Located on the side of densely forested Mount Mungalo, the village was home to a transient population that could swell to more than 4,000 people.

It served as a trading post for miners who panned for gold in the highlands.

Since the start of the year, the country has experienced multiple earthquakes, floods and landslides, stretching the resources of emergency services.


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