Survivors of huge landslide moved to safety

Clear the way: An injured person being carried on a stretcher after the landslide in Yambali village, Enga province. ­— AP

EMERGENCY responders here were moving survivors of a massive landslide – feared to have buried scores of people – to safer ground as tons of unstable earth and tribal warfare, which is rife in the country’s Highlands, threatened the rescue effort.

Crews have given up hope of finding survivors under earth and rubble six to eight metres deep after a landslide wiped out part of Yambali village a few hours before dawn on Friday, said Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission in Papua New Guinea.

Local authorities initially estimated the death toll could be around 100, but others fear many more have died.

“Hopes to take the people out alive from the rubble have diminished now,” Aktoprak said.

“People are coming to terms with this, so there is a serious level of grieving and mourning.”

Only fives bodies had been dug out of the debris by hand by late Saturday, with heavy earth-moving equipment yet to arrive at the mountainous location 600km northwest of the capital, Port Moresby.

Estimates of homes destroyed were revised up by 40 yesterday.

Government authorities were establishing evacuation centres on safer ground on either side of the massive swathe of debris that covers an area the size of three to four football fields and has cut the main highway in the province.

“Working across the debris is very dangerous and the land is still sliding,” Aktoprak said.

Besides the blocked highway, convoys that have transported food, water and other essential supplies since Saturday to the devastated village 60km from the provincial capital Wabag have faced risks related to tribal fighting in Tambitanis village about halfway along the route. Papua New Guinea soldiers were providing security for the convoys.

Eight locals were killed in a clash between two rival clans on Saturday in a longstanding dispute unrelated to the landslide. Around 30 homes and five retail businesses were burned down in the fighting, local officials said.

Aktoprak said he did not expect tribal combatants would target the convoys but noted that opportunistic criminals might take advantage of the mayhem to do so.

Longtime tribal warfare has cast doubt on the official estimate that almost 4,000 people were living in the village when a side of Mount Mungalo fell away.

Justine McMahon, country director of the humanitarian agency Care International, said that figure was based on an out-of-date census and didn’t take into account the recent movements of refugees fleeing tribal violence in the region.

“The authorities do anticipate that the number of casualties will rise,” McMahon said.

“Because of tribal fights, other displaced people had moved into the area, so they do expect that the population is much bigger than the official figures indicate.”

Medical facilities were buried along with more than 100 houses, several small businesses, a guest house, school and gas station, officials said. — AP

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