Over 100 feared dead in landslide in remote part of Papua New Guinea, with rescue efforts underway

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — More than 100 people are believed to have been killed in a landslide Friday that buried a village in a remote, mountainous part of Papua New Guinea, and an emergency response is underway, officials in the South Pacific island nation said.

The landslide struck Enga province, about 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest of the capital, Port Moresby, at roughly 3 a.m., Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Residents from surrounding areas said boulders and trees from a collapsed mountainside buried parts of the community and left it isolated.

Residents said that estimates of the death toll were above 100, although authorities haven't confirmed that figure. Some villagers and local media reports said the number of people killed might be much higher, though they did not cite sources.

The chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission in Papua New Guinea, Serhan Aktoprak, said the landslide struck Yambali village, which is about two hours' drive from Enga's provincial capital of Wabag.

Yambali sits along a road leading from the capital that is now blocked, hampering relief efforts, Aktoprak told The Associated Press.

“The land still continues sliding, therefore it makes it very difficult to operate on,” he said, citing firsthand reports from IOM staff and others deployed from the provincial capital to the affected village.

He said the area affected covered the size of three to four football fields, and that the village is home to 3,895 people. He said that some houses in the village were spared by the landslide, but that the total number of casualties is not yet known.

Aktoprak, who spoke by phone from the Papuan capital, Port Moreseby, said that “given the scale of the disaster,” he feared that the death toll could be higher than original estimates of about 100.

Water is inaccessible in the affected area, power lines are down, and villagers are likely to struggle with accessing food, Aktoprak said. “Immediate needs are shelter, other non-food items (like) blankets and bedsheets, food and drinking water,” he added.

ABC had earlier named the affected village as Kaokalam. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the differing names.

Prime Minister James Marape said authorities were responding and that he would release information about the destruction and loss of life when it was available.

“I am yet to be fully briefed on the situation. However, I extend my heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the landslide disaster in the early hours of this morning,” Marape said in a statement.

“We are sending in disaster officials, PNG Defense Force, and the Department of Works and Highways to ... start relief work, recovery of bodies, and reconstruction of infrastructure,” he added.

Australia, a near neighbor and Papua New Guinea's most generous provider of foreign aid, said the government stood ready to help.

“We send our heartfelt sympathies to the people of PNG following the landslide," Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong posted on social media. “The loss of life and destruction is devastating,” she added. “As friends and partners, Australia stands ready to assist in relief and recovery efforts.”

Videos on social media showed residents pulling out bodies buried under rocks and trees.

Elizabeth Laruma, who runs a women's business association in Porgera, a town in the same province near the Porgera Gold Mine, said that houses were flattened when the side of a mountain gave way.

"It has occurred when people were still asleep in the early hours, and the entire village has gone down,” Laruma told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “From what I can presume, it’s about 100-plus people who are buried beneath the ground.”

The landslide blocked the road between Porgera and the village, she said, raising concerns about the town's supply of fuel and goods.

Village resident Ninga Role, who was away when the landslide struck, expects that at least four of his relatives died.

“There are some huge stones and plants, trees. The buildings collapsed,” Role said. “These things are making it hard to find the bodies.”

Belinda Kora, a Port Moresby-based ABC reporter, said helicopters were the only way of accessing the village, which is in the mountainous interior region known as the Highlands, with the main road closed.

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

With 10 million people, it is also the most populous South Pacific nation after Australia, which is home to around 27 million.

Telecommunications are poor, particularly outside Port Moresby, where government data show 56% of the nation's social media users reside. Only 1.66 million people across the country use the internet and 85% of the population lives in rural areas.


Adam Schreck in Bangkok contributed reporting.