Papua New Guinea fears thousands missing after landslide

There are fears the number of missing following a deadly landslide in Papua New Guinea could stretch into the thousands, a government agency has said.

The acting director of the nation’s National Disaster Centre said in a letter it was feared more than 2,000 people were buried alive in Friday’s disaster.

However, an exact casualty figure has been hard to establish and estimates have varied widely, as rescue efforts have been hindered by rubble 10m (32ft) deep in some places and a lack of adequate equipment.

Fewer than a dozen bodies have been recovered so far, while the United Nations (UN) put the figure of the missing at 670.

The collapse of a mountain side early Friday morning wiped out a bustling village in Enga province, with the damage extending for close to a kilometre, observers report.

About 3,800 people had been living in the area prior to the disaster.

The letter by Lusete Laso Mana said the damage was “extensive”, and that it had “caused major impact on the economic lifeline of the country”.

Prime Minister James Marape has expressed his condolences and ordered the country’s defence force and emergency agencies to the area, about 600km north-west of the capital Port Moresby.

But locals in the affected Kaokalam village say they are still waiting for officials to step in with larger rescue operations.

One resident, Evit Kambu, said she believed many of her family members were trapped under the rubble and debris.

“I have eighteen of my family members buried under the debris and soil that I am standing on. And a lot more family members in the village I cannot count,” she told news agency Reuters.

“Thank you to all those who’ve come to help us. But I cannot retrieve the bodies, so I am standing here helplessly.”

A community leader who visited the site told the BBC locals felt they had been left to fend for themselves. They were using shovels and their bare hands to try and dig people out.

“It’s been almost three to four days now but [many] bodies are not located yet. It is still covered by the landslide and people are finding it really hard to dig them out – they are calling for the government for support and help,” Ignas Nembo told the BBC’s Newshour programme.

However, a police official from the province told the BBC he had seen soldiers arrive at the scene and they were attempting to remove boulders to try and free those trapped.

Acting Provincial Police Commander Martin Kelei described these efforts as precarious – as removing car-sized boulders and other large barriers risked further rock slips.

“Digging is very hard at the moment because we’re worried about further landslides and deaths – so local people are only digging from where they can see it is safe. We are trying to identify wherever we can see that people are buried,” he said.

He had visited the site several times since Friday’s collapse and claimed survivors could still be heard calling for help under the rubble.

Local media reported one couple being pulled alive from under rocks. They had survived as their home only caught the edge of the landslide’s onslaught.

They were saved after rescue workers heard their shouts for help, the local NBC channel reported.

Remaining residents are being evacuated as the region remains high-risk amid forecasts of further rain.

“The ground is also quite unstable at the moment and it is at risk of triggering further landslide,” said Justine McMahon, the country co-ordinator of Care Australia, one of the humanitarian aid agencies on the ground.

“We’ve decided to stay out for now to allow the authorities time to properly assess the situation to conduct the rescue and recovery operations.”

Earlier, an official for the UN’s migration agency in the country had also described to the BBC the difficulties around the rescue.

Serhan Aktoprak from the International Organization for Migration said there were a number of challenges facing teams trying to recover bodies, including reluctance by some grieving relatives to let heavy machinery near their loved ones.

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

Debris from the landslide, which includes large boulders, trees and displaced soil.

Crews at the scene also say rescue efforts are being hindered by major damage to the sole road leading to the town. The landslide has damaged a length of about 200m (650ft), Ms McMahon said.

The Mount Mungalo landslide occurred in the highlands of Enga, in the north of the island nation.

Local officials and reporters have attributed the mountain’s collapse to weeks of heavy rain and other wet conditions in the area.

With reporting from Tiffanie Turnbull in SydneyBBC

By Frances Mao

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