Papua New Guinea reports more than 2000 people buried in devastating landslide

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More than 2,000 people have been buried in a landslide in Papua New Guinea that destroyed a remote highland village, the government warned on Monday, appealing for international help in rescue efforts.

The once bustling mountain village in Enga province was nearly wiped out when a piece of Mount Mungalo collapsed in the early hours of Friday, burying dozens of houses and the people sleeping inside them.

“The landslide buried more than 2,000 people under water and caused extensive damage to buildings and vegetable gardens. It also had a significant impact on the country’s economic lifeline,” said a letter from Papua New Guinea’s national disaster management center to the UN, which was seen by the AFP news agency.

The main road to the large Porgera gold mine is “completely blocked,” said the UN coordinator’s office in the capital Port Moresby.

“The situation remains unstable as the landslide continues to slowly shift, posing an ongoing threat to both rescue teams and survivors,” the disaster center said.

The scale of the disaster requires “immediate and joint action by all parties involved,” it said, including the army and relief workers at national and regional levels.

She called on the United Nations to inform Papua New Guinea’s development partners “and other international friends” about the crisis.

The UN has invited its member states to an emergency aid meeting, the French embassy in Port Moresby said.

Locals and rescue teams have been using shovels and pieces of wood to search for bodies beneath the landslide – a mix of car-sized boulders, uprooted trees and disturbed earth estimated to be up to eight metres deep.

“The landmass is still slipping, rocks are falling from the mountain,” UN migration agency official Serhan Aktoprak told AFP.

Streams of water flowed between soil and debris, while cracks appeared in the land adjacent to the landslide, Aktoprak said.

“This could trigger further landslides,” the UN official warned, adding that this would pose a “serious danger” to both rescue workers and people living in the region.

Aktoprak said his colleagues had to flee from falling rocks on the construction site over the weekend.

Locals said the landslide could have been triggered by heavy rains in recent weeks. Papua New Guinea has one of the wettest climates in the world, and studies have shown that changing rainfall patterns due to climate change could increase the risk of landslides.

The death toll has continued to rise since the disaster as authorities have had to re-estimate the size of the population lying under mud and rubble stretching nearly four football fields, officials say.

It is difficult to estimate the number of victims because many people have moved to the area in recent years to escape tribal violence, said Nicholas Booth, a UN Development Programme official.

By Saturday night, five bodies and the leg of a sixth had been recovered from the rubble.

“It has been three days and seven hours since this disaster, so we are in a race against time. But whether we can get people to safety is another question,” said Aktoprak.

Aid organizations estimate that more than 1,000 people have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the disaster.

An outbreak of tribal fighting unrelated to the disaster is blocking efforts to bring humanitarian aid into the country from the provincial capital Wabag, the UN representative said.

“Many houses are burning, others are emitting smoke. Women and children have been displaced and all the youth and men in the area were carrying machetes,” he said, quoting a report from an aid convoy trying to reach the disaster area.

The tribal fighting had also delayed the delivery of heavy machinery and excavators. The area is about 600 kilometers from Port Moresby.

“Nobody escaped. We don’t know who died because the records are buried,” Jacob Sowai, a teacher from a neighboring village, told AFP.

People from neighboring villages helped dig up the bodies, said Nickson Pakea, president of the nearby Porgera Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“It’s quite a mess because of the hard rock and the clay, the stone and the rocks that have come in. You need excavators to clear the rubble away,” Pakea told AFP.

A nearby mining joint venture, New Porgera Limited, has agreed to provide excavators to assist rescue workers and clear roads, he said.

The village is located on a slope of the densely forested Mount Mungalo and was home to a nomadic population that grew to over 4,000 people.

It served as a trading post for miners who dig for gold in the highlands. Since the beginning of the year, the country has experienced several earthquakes, floods and landslides that have overwhelmed emergency services resources.

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