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Over 2,000 killed in Papua New Guinea landslide, authorities say

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VIDEO BY REUTERS
EMMANUEL ERALIA VIA REUTERS
                                Residents gather amid the damage from a landslide in Maip Mulitaka, Enga province, Papua New Guinea on Friday.
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EMMANUEL ERALIA VIA REUTERS

Residents gather amid the damage from a landslide in Maip Mulitaka, Enga province, Papua New Guinea on Friday.

EMMANUEL ERALIA VIA REUTERS
                                Residents gather amid the damage from a landslide in Maip Mulitaka, Enga province, Papua New Guinea on Friday.

SYDNEY >> Papua New Guinea’s massive landslide three days ago buried more than 2,000 people, the government said on Monday, as treacherous terrain impeded aid and lowered hopes of finding survivors.

The National Disaster Centre gave the new number in a letter to the U.N., which had put possible deaths at more than 670.

The variance reflects the remote site and the difficulty in getting an accurate population estimate. The Pacific island nation’s last credible census was in 2000 and many people live in isolated mountain villages.

Defence Minister Billy Joseph said 4,000 people had been living in the six remote villages in the Maip-Mulitaka area in Enga province, where the landslide occurred in the early hours of Friday while most were asleep.

More than 150 houses were buried beneath debris almost two storeys high. Rescuers heard screams from beneath the earth.

“I have 18 of my family members being buried under the debris and soil that I am standing on, and a lot more family members in the village I cannot count,” resident Evit Kambu told Reuters. “But I cannot retrieve the bodies so I am standing here helplessly.”

More than 72 hours after the landslide, residents were still using spades, sticks and bare hands to try and shift debris. Only five bodies had been found, according to the provincial authority.

FUNERAL

Villagers held one funeral on Monday: mourners walked behind the coffin weeping, according to U.N. official’s video.

Heavy equipment and assistance have been slow to arrive due to the remote location while tribal warfare nearby has made aid workers travel in convoys escorted by soldiers and return to the provincial capital, 60 km (37 miles) away, at night.

Eight people were killed and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday in the violence, a U.N. agency official said. Aid convoys on Monday passed the still smoking remains of houses.

The first excavator only reached the disaster site late on Sunday, according to a U.N. official.

Many people are still unsure whether loved ones were caught as villagers often move between homes of friends and relatives, according to Matthew Hewitt Tapus, a pastor in the PNG capital Port Moresby whose home village is close to the disaster.

“It’s not like everyone is in the same house at the same time, so you have fathers who don’t know where their children are, mothers who don’t know where husbands are, it’s chaotic,” he told Reuters by phone.

‘CHANCES SLIM’

Joseph said the defense operations chief was sent to the disaster scene within 24 hours with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, and a PNG defense engineering team was on site, as well as a military helicopter for evacuations.

The government has requested a New Zealand Defence Force geotechnical team to assess possibly unstable land nearby which would make heavy earth-moving equipment dangerous, he said.

The province needs to build capacity for disaster warnings, the minister added, saying the government would rebuild the villages and reopen the main highway to the town and gold mine at Porgera.

Australia announced an initial A$2.5 million ($1.66 million) aid package late on Monday and said it would send technical experts to help with rescue and recovery.

China, which has been wooing Pacific island nations, also said it would provide assistance.

Rain, unstable ground and flowing water was making it extremely dangerous for residents and rescue teams to clear debris, according to Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the U.N. migration agency’s mission in PNG.

More than 250 homes have been evacuated, he said, with more than 1,250 people displaced.

Some residents do not want heavy machinery interrupting mourning, the U.N. official added. “At this point, people I think are realising that the chances are very slim that anyone can basically be taken out alive.”


Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing.


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