More than 670 feared dead in PNG landslide: UN agency

Suzanne Simonot |

The landslide in PNG has buried hundreds of people and at least 1100 houses, DFAT says.
The landslide in PNG has buried hundreds of people and at least 1100 houses, DFAT says.

More than 670 people have died in Papua New Guinea’s massive landslide, the United Nations migration agency estimates, as rescue efforts continue.

Media in the South Pacific nation north of Australia had previously estimated that Friday’s landslide had buried more than 300 people. 

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said earlier on Sunday that only five bodies had been retrieved from the rubble.

The agency based its death toll estimates on information provided by officials at Yambali Village in the Enga province, who say more than 150 houses were buried in Friday’s landslide, Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the agency’s mission in PNG said in an email statement.

More than six villages have been impacted by the landslide in the province’s Mulitaka region, about 600km from the capital Port Moresby, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

“Land is still sliding, rocks are falling, ground soil is cracking due to constant increased pressure and groundwater is running thus area is posing an extreme risk for everyone,” Aktoprak said.

More than 250 houses nearby have been abandoned by the inhabitants, who had taken temporary shelter with their relatives and friends, and some 1250 people have been displaced, the agency said.

“People are using digging sticks, spades, large agricultural forks to remove the bodies buried under the soil,” Aktoprak said.

The IOM said more than 100 houses, an elementary school, small businesses and stalls, a guesthouse, and a petrol station were buried.

The UN’s Papua New Guinea office said three bodies were retrieved from an area where 50 to 60 homes had been destroyed, and a number of injured reported, including at least 20 women and children.

PNG landslide
More than six villages have been impacted by a deadly landslide in northern PNG. (AP PHOTO)

IOM said the community in this village was relatively young and it’s feared that the most fatalities would be children of 15 years or younger.

Social media footage posted by villagers and local media teams showed people clambering over rocks, uprooted trees and mounds of dirt searching for survivors.  

Women could be heard weeping in the background.

The landslide hit a section of highway near the Porgera gold mine, operated by Barrick Gold through Barrick Niugini Ltd, its joint venture with China’s Zijin Mining.

The Porgera Highway remained blocked, IOM said, and the only way to reach the Porgera Gold Mine and other localities cut off from the rest of Enga Province was via helicopter.

The geographic remoteness and the tough, hilly terrain has slowed rescue and aid efforts.

The government and the PNG Defence Force engineering team is on the ground now, but heavy equipment such as excavators, required for the rescue, is yet to reach the village.

IOM said the community might not allow the use of excavators until they consider they had fulfilled their mourning and grieving obligations.

People digging in landslide rubble
Prime Minister James Marape says disaster officials and defence are assisting with recovery efforts. (AP PHOTO)

“People are coming to terms with the fact that the people under the debris are now all but lost,” IOM said in an earlier status update by email.

The government plans to establish care/evacuation centres on each side of the affected area to host the displaced who might need shelter.

A humanitarian convoy has started distributing bottled water, food, clothing, hygiene kits, kitchen utensils, tarpaulins, as well as personal protective equipment.

Aid group CARE Australia said late on Saturday almost 4000 people lived in the impact zone but the number affected was probably higher as the area was “a place of refuge for those displaced by conflicts” in nearby areas.

At least 26 men were killed in Enga Province in February in an ambush amid tribal violence that prompted Prime Minister James Marape to give arrest powers to the country’s military.

The landslide left debris up to 8m deep across 200sq km, cutting off road access and making relief efforts difficult, CARE said. 

Marape has said disaster officials, the Defence Force and the Department of Works and Highways were assisting with relief and recovery efforts.