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24 Jun 2024 14:46
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  •   Home > News > International

    Hopes fade of finding survivors in Papua New Guinea landslide as UN calls emergency meeting

    The United Nations will hold an emergency meeting to further coordinate the response to the disaster, which has been hampered by the weather and tribal violence in the remote region.


    Locals in Papua New Guinea's remote highlands are grieving as their loved ones remain trapped under a massive landslide, with treacherous terrain impeding the arrival of aid as hopes of finding people alive dwindle.

    The challenges of coordinating an emergency response have prompted the United Nations to call a virtual meeting of international governments on Tuesday to organise the relief effort.

    Meanwhile, locals on the ground are continuing to try and find their loved ones days after the disaster struck.

    "I have 18 of my family members being buried under the debris and soil that I am standing on, and a lot more family members in the village I cannot count," resident Evit Kambu told Reuters.

    "But I cannot retrieve the bodies so I am standing here helplessly."

    PNG's disaster agency estimates that "more than 2,000 people" could be buried under meters of earth. 

    The National Disaster Centre gave the new number in a letter to the United Nations, which had put possible deaths at more than 670.

    The variance reflects the remote site and the difficulty in getting an accurate population estimate. 

    Many people are still unsure whether loved ones have been caught up in the disaster as villagers often move between homes of friends and relatives, according to Matthew Hewitt Tapus, a pastor in the PNG capital Port Moresby whose home village is close to the disaster.

    "It's not like everyone is in the same house at the same time, so you have fathers who don't know where their children are, mothers who don't know where husbands are, it's chaotic," he told Reuters by phone.

    Pastor Joseph said the defence operations chief was sent to the disaster scene within 24 hours with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, and a PNG defence engineering team was on site, as well as a military helicopter for evacuations.

    The Pacific Island nation's last credible census was in 2000 and many people live in isolated mountain villages.

    Defence Minister Billy Joseph said 4,000 people had been living in the six remote villages in the Maip Mulitaka area in Enga province, where the landslide occurred in the early hours of Friday while most were asleep.

    More than 150 houses were buried beneath debris almost two storeys high. Rescuers heard screams from beneath the earth.

    [PNG datawrapper]

    More than 72 hours after the landslide, residents were still using spades, sticks and bare hands to try and shift debris.

    Only five bodies had been found, according to the provincial authority.

    Mourners gather for first funeral

    Villagers held one funeral on Monday: mourners walked behind the coffin weeping, according to video from a UN official.

    Heavy equipment and assistance have been slow to arrive due to the remote location.

    The UN is scheduled to hold an online emergency meeting with foreign governments early on Tuesday to try and coordinate the relief effort.

    Tribal warfare nearby has forced aid workers to travel in convoys escorted by soldiers and return to the provincial capital, 60 kilometres away, at night.

    Eight people were killed and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday in the violence, a UN agency official said.

    Aid convoys on Monday passed the still smoking remains of houses.

    The PNG government said it would rebuild the villages and reopen the main highway to the town and gold mine at Porgera which had been cut off by the landslide.

    The operator of the mine said it was operating without restriction despite the mountainside collapse and had enough fuel on-site for 40 days.

    The PNG government has also requested a New Zealand Defence Force geotechnical team to assess possibly unstable land nearby which would make heavy earth-moving equipment dangerous.

    Australia announced an initial $2.5 million aid package late on Monday and said it would send technical experts to help with rescue and recovery.

    On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said Australia had been working with authorities in PNG since the news of the diaster broke.

    He said the first representatives of PNG's national disaster committee were flown to the site on a RAAF Spartan plane and a helicopter.

    He said a Hercules had since joined the Australian aircraft in PNG.

    "We have a C-17 which is now ferrying supplies between Australia and PNG," he said.

    "In addition to the disaster response experts who are on their way to PNG now, the emphasis is on helping those who are displaced, and we are working on transporting 750 family-sized shelters to the site."

    China, which has been wooing Pacific Island nations, also said it would also assist.

    Rain, unstable ground and flowing water were making it extremely dangerous for residents and rescue teams to clear debris.

    Chief of the UN migration agency's mission in PNG, Serhan Aktoprak, said more than 250 homes have been evacuated, with more than 1,250 people displaced.

    Some residents do not want heavy machinery interrupting mourning, he added.

    "At this point, people I think are realising that the chances are very slim that anyone can basically be taken out alive," Mr Aktoprak said.

    King Charles III and Queen Camilla expressed their "most heartfelt condolences" to the communities suffering as a result of the traumatic event.

    "My wife and I were deeply shocked and saddened to learn of the devastating landslide in Enga, and the tragic loss of so many lives, homes and food gardens," the king said in a statement.

    He first visited PNG as a teenager on a trip from Geelong, Victoria, in 1966 when he attended the Timbertop boarding school. 

    "I have witnessed at first-hand and have great admiration for, the extraordinary resilience of the peoples of Papua New Guinea and the Highlands.

    "I have faith that your communities will come together to support the survivors and the recovery in these heartbreaking circumstances.

    "Papua New Guinea is very much in our special thoughts and prayers."

    ABC with wires

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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