Hundreds Feared Dead in Papua New Guinea Landslide


Unstable rubble and debris were complicating search and rescue efforts in rural Papua New Guinea on Saturday, a day after a massive landslide buried villages and killed at least three people. Local officials said the death toll was likely to be at least in the hundreds.

Nearly 4,000 people live in the three villages engulfed by the landslide early Friday, said Sandis Tsaka, the provincial administrator for Enga, which includes the affected area. He said the death toll was likely to be high because the landslide hit a densely populated area that is also a highly trafficked corridor.

“Our people will consider it of biblical proportions,” he said. “We are looking for all the help and support we can get to address the humanitarian disaster of proportions we’ve never seen in this part of the world.”

Three bodies were pulled out of the rubble on Friday, and five people, including a child, were treated for their injuries, according to Mr. Tsaka.

The disaster struck around 3 a.m., catching most residents off guard and sending huge boulders, some larger than shipping containers, tumbling down. At least 60 homes were buried under as much as 20 feet of debris, Mr. Tsaka said. At least a 500-foot section of the Porgera Highway, the main thoroughfare connecting the area, was inundated, he said.

The landslide buried an area equivalent to about three or four soccer fields, said Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration’s office in Papua New Guinea. A humanitarian aid convoy, after some delays, reached the affected villages Saturday afternoon to deliver tarps and water, he said.

The villages are populated mostly by subsistence farmers and are in the highlands region of Papua New Guinea, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The province has been afflicted in recent months by escalating deadly clashes between tribal groups.

The aid convoy was delayed by a blockade set up by one of the groups involved in the conflict, and was allowed through only after the military got involved, Mr. Aktoprak said, slowing relief efforts when time was critical. Daylight hours are getting shorter in the Southern Hemisphere, with the sun setting just before 6 p.m., he noted.

“Every minute that passes is basically shrinking our chances of reaching them alive,” he said.

Mr. Tsaka, the provincial official, said that the area was prone to smaller landslides, and in recent months, the weather had been continuously wet.

Heavy rain was forecast to continue pummeling the area in the coming days, further hampering rescue efforts. International organizations and the country’s defense forces were arriving to help, according to Mr. Tsaka.

President Biden said in a statement Friday that the United States was ready to aid in rescue and recovery efforts. Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, also said in a statement that her country was ready to respond to requests for assistance.

Vincent Pyati, president of the local Community Development Association, said the area was a transport node where many came from remote areas overnight to catch public motor vehicles, a popular method of transit, probably adding to the toll. He said there was also a drinking club popular with people from all over the district.

Mr. Pyati said at least 300 people were estimated to have been killed.



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