Race to Rescue Villagers Trapped after Deadly Landslide in Papua New Guinea

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The operation to reach those affected had been complicated by fears of further landslides.

Emergency services are racing to rescue victims of a massive landslide that devastated a remote village in the mountains of Papua New Guinea.

The landslide occurred in the isolated Enga province at around 03:00 local time Friday (17:00 GMT on Thursday), leaving hundreds of homes buried. It remained unclear how many people were trapped under the rubble.

An assessment team reported “suggestions” that 100 people were dead and 60 houses buried by the mountainside that collapsed in the South Pacific island nation’s north, said Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the International Organisation for Migration’s mission in Papua New Guinea.

Confirming a firm number of those killed will be difficult “given it is considered culturally taboo to ask survivors of the status of their relatives,” Aktoprak said. He, however, added that the death toll could reach over 100 “given the scale of the disaster”.

Humanitarian agency Care Australia also warned that the number affected was “likely to be higher” because of an influx of people escaping tribal conflicts in neighbouring areas. It added that other villages could also be at risk “if the landslide continues down the mountain”.

The local emergency response team has so far recovered three bodies from the vast swath of earth, boulders, and splintered trees that struck part of Yambali, a village of nearly 4,000 people that is 600km (370 miles) northwest of the capital Port Moresby.

Relief efforts have been hampered by difficult terrain and damage to main roads. Parts of the affected area are only accessible via helicopter.

But Care Australia said a group of rescuers succeeded in reaching the region.

The UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Papua New Guinea said the emergency team had provided emergency medical assistance to six survivors, including one child.

Amos Akem, an Enga province MP, told the Guardian that based on reports from the ground, “the landslide buried more than 300 people and 1,182 houses”. He said rescue efforts had been hampered by a blocked road connecting the affected Yambali village and the capital.

A spokesperson for Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said Saturday that he would release information about the scale of the destruction and loss of life when it becomes available.

UN official Serhan Aktoprak told the Associated Press news agency that the area affected by the landslide covered the size of three to four football fields.

Enga’s governor Peter Ipatas described the landslide as an “unprecedented natural disaster”, telling AFP news agency that as many as “six villages” had been affected.

All food gardens that sustain Yambali’s subsistence farming population were destroyed and the three streams that provide drinking water buried by the landslide.

A convoy left the provincial capital of Wabag on Saturday morning carrying food, water, and other essentials to the devastated village 60km (35 miles) away.

Further convoys are planned for Sunday, including the arrival of heavy earth-moving machinery to help clear the 6 to 8 metres (20 to 26ft) of debris, earth, and rocks that fell from the Mungalo mountain sitting above Yambali.

Emergency responders may face challenges using heavy machinery due to the risk and “cultural sensitivities of desecrating bodies that may be within the rubble,” said Philip Mene, an IOM program associate.

US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said their governments stood ready to assist, with Biden describing Papua New Guinea as a “close partner and friend” of the US.

Washington and Canberra are building closer defence ties with the strategically important nation, where China is seeking closer security and economic ties.