Papua New Guinea: More than 2,000 people buried alive in landslide - as 'major destruction' hampers rescue efforts

26 May 2024, 02:49 | Updated: 27 May 2024, 14:09

More than 2,000 people have been buried by a massive landslide in northern Papua New Guinea, the country's disaster agency has said.

The landslide levelled the mountainous Kaokalam village in Enga Province - about 370 miles (600km) northwest of the capital Port Moresby.

It hit the Pacific nation at around 3am local time on Friday (6pm on Thursday UK time), and the United Nations had earlier said it estimated 670 people had been killed. Local officials had initially put the number of dead at 100 or more.

The Papua New Guinea national disaster centre said the landslide had buried more than 2,000 people.

"The landslide buried more than 2,000 people alive and caused major destruction to buildings, food gardens and caused major impact on the economic lifeline of the country," an official from the national disaster centre said in a letter to the United Nations.

Earlier, Serhan Aktoprak, head of the United Nations' International Organisation for Migration mission on the island nation, said the figure of 670 deaths was based on calculations by local officials that more than 150 homes had been buried. The previous estimate was 60 homes.

"They are estimating that more than 670 people [are] under the soil at the moment," he said.

However, Mr Aktoprak added: "Hopes to take the people out alive from the rubble have diminished now."

More than 4,000 people were likely impacted by the disaster, humanitarian group CARE Australia said earlier.

It said the area was "a place of refuge for those displaced by [nearby] conflicts".

The update comes as Australia said it was preparing to send aircraft and other equipment to help at the site of the landslide.

Papua New Guinea is Australia's closest neighbour and Australia has been the most generous provider of foreign aid to its former colony, which became independent in 1975.

Poor weather and overnight rains in the South Pacific nation's mountainous region have sparked fresh fears the rubble could become dangerously unstable.

China has said it will provide assistance for disaster relief and post-disaster reconstruction.

"We believe that the people of Papua New Guinea will be able to overcome difficulties and rebuild their homeland at an early date," foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily news briefing.

The King said he and the Queen were "deeply shocked and saddened" to learn of the landslide "and the tragic loss of so many lives, homes and food gardens".

In a statement he said: "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.

"My wife joins me in sending our most heartfelt condolences to the families and communities who have suffered so much as a result of this appallingly traumatic event. Papua New Guinea is very much in our special thoughts and prayers."

About six villages were affected by the landslide in the province's Mulitaka region, according to Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Three bodies were pulled from an area where 50 to 60 homes were destroyed. Six people, including a child, were pulled from the rubble alive, the UN's Papua New Guinea office said.

But hopes of finding more survivors were diminishing.

The landslide left debris up to eight metres deep across 200 sq km (77 sq miles), cutting off road access, which was making relief efforts difficult. Helicopters were the only way to reach the area.

Survivors searched through tonnes of earth and rubble by hand looking for missing relatives while a first emergency convoy delivered food, water and other provisions on Saturday.

In February, at least 26 men were killed in Enga Province in an ambush amid tribal violence that prompted Prime Minister James Marape to give arrest powers to the country's military.

Mr Marape has said disaster officials, the defence force and the department of works and highways were assisting with relief and recovery efforts.

Papua New Guinea, with a population of around 10 million, is a diverse, developing nation of mostly subsistence farmers with 800 languages. There are few roads outside the larger cities.

It is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where much of the world's earthquake and volcanic activity occurs.

In March, the country was hit by a 6.9-magnitude earthquake.

The US and Australia are building closer defence ties with the strategically important nation, while China is also seeking closer security and economic ties.