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22 Jun 2024 14:03
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  •   Home > News > International

    More than 670 people now feared dead following landslide in Papua New Guinea's highlands

    The International Organisation for Migration's chief of mission in Papua New Guinea said the scale of impact was greater than initially thought.


    A United Nations agency has confirmed more than 670 people are presumed dead following a landslide in Papua New Guinea's highlands on Friday.

    Warning: This story contains distressing details.

    The International Organization for Migration's chief of mission in Papua New Guinea, Serhan Aktoprak, said the scale of the impact was much greater than initially thought.

    "Now, the estimates suggest that 150 plus houses may be under the debris of six to eight metres deep. And they are fearing that approximately 670 plus people could have lost their lives," Mr Aktoprak told the ABC.

    He said terrain surrounding the disaster zone in Enga province remained dangerous and unstable – prompting the evacuation of about 1,250 survivors.

    "When I was speaking with my colleagues … about an hour ago, as a matter of fact, they had to run away from the site because of the increased danger as rocks nonstop keep falling and the land continues to slide," Mr Aktoprak.

    "This coupled with the heavy bulk of soil that had already landed earlier, is putting pressure on the surrounding houses, hence the evacuation of those."

    The UN, government agencies, police and military personnel are assisting with the recovery.

    Locals were digging with shovels, sticks and bare hands to find people they fear are buried beneath rubble and rock. 

    By Sunday, only five bodies and a leg of a sixth victim had been recovered. 

    Homes and two health centres lie underneath where the side of the mountain gave way on Friday. 

    Complicated search and recovery process

    Local humanitarian groups say the long-term impact of the disaster is devastating. 

    "People have lost their house, they've lost their food gardens, they've lost their loved ones," CARE International PNG county director Justine McMahon said. 

    "We understand health facilities have been destroyed.

    "So that will really have an impact on people as well."

    But there are many obstacles to recovery, with loose soil still threatening nearby homes that have survived and roads into the village still remain obstructed, preventing excavators from getting to the site. 

    "The recovery time is expected to be long, search and rescue efforts are complicated due to the nature of the terrain and the remote access," UN humanitarian adviser Mate Bagossy told the ABC. 

    "So we expect search and rescue to continue for days or weeks."

    Beside the blocked highway, convoys have transported food, water and other essential supplies since Saturday to the devastated village 60 kilometres from the provincial capital, Wabag. 

    The convoys have been moving slowly, as they are not to travel through the area in the dark for security reasons, and daylight hours are getting shorter heading into winter. 

    To add to the complexity of the operation, Serhan Aktoprak told the ABC a dispute between two clans has erupted in Tambitanis village, approximately 27 kilometres, halfway, along the route. 

    "So far eight people have been killed … 30 houses had been burned down and five businesses, stores, shops have also been burned down," he said. 

    "Now this is also creating an increased risk of safety for [aid] convoys, including humanitarian personnel."

    Enga Province has had long-term issues with tribal warfare and dozens of people were killed in a massacre earlier this year. 

    Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea's government is under pressure after 18 members left the ruling party to join the opposition at the weekend — including former finance minister Rainbo Paita. 

    Prime Minister James Marape said he would not resign as leader, calling the split a "blessing in disguise". 

    "Some of the excess fat in government is trimmed so that we can have a lean and coherent government," he said in a statement. 

    A no-confidence motion in the prime minister is expected to be brought to parliament on Tuesday.

    Mr Marape has not responded to the ABC's requests for comment on the landslide. 

    On Friday, he offered condolences to the affected families.

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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