Published: 12:46, May 27, 2024 | Updated: 14:31, May 27, 2024
More than 2,000 buried alive in PNG landslide, local authorities say
By Reuters
Villagers search through a landslide in Yambali, in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, May 26, 2024. (PHOTO / AP)

SYDNEY — More than 2,000 people were buried alive by a massive landslide in Papua New Guinea last week, the national disaster center said on Monday, as treacherous terrain and the difficulty of getting aid to the site raises the risk few survivors will be found.

The numbers of those buried around Yambali village in Enga province in the country's north are based on estimates from local authorities which have been rising steadily since Friday's landslide.

Emergency crews, led by Papua New Guinea's (PNG) defense personnel, were on the ground, but the first excavator only reached the site late on Sunday, according to a UN official

A UN agency put the estimated death toll at more than 670 people on Sunday.

READ MORE: UN official: At least 670 feared dead after huge landslide in PNG

The National Disaster Centre raised the toll again to 2,000 in a letter to the UN on Sunday that was released publicly on Monday. The landslide also caused major destruction to buildings and food gardens, it said.

"The situation remains unstable as the landslip continues to shift slowly, posing ongoing danger to both the rescue teams and survivors alike," according to the letter.

About 4,000 people were living near the affected area, CARE International PNG country director Justine McMahon told ABC television on Monday.

But it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the local population as PNG's last credible census was in 2000 and many people live in remote mountainous villages. The country recently announced a census would be conducted in 2024.

The unstable terrain, remote location and nearby tribal warfare are hampering relief efforts in Papua New Guinea.

Emergency crews, led by Papua New Guinea's (PNG) defense personnel, were on the ground, but the first excavator only reached the site late on Sunday, according to a UN official.

Social media footage posted by villagers and local media teams showed people scaling rocks, digging with shovels, sticks and their bare hands to find survivors. Women could be heard weeping in the background.

About 1,250 people have been displaced by the landslide, which occurred in PNG's Enga province early Friday. More than 150 houses were buried and about 250 houses abandoned

Six bodies have been retrieved so far. The UN said the number of possible deaths could change as rescue efforts were expected to continue for days.

PNG media on Monday reported that residents had rescued a couple trapped under rubble after hearing their cries for help.

Johnson and Jacklyn Yandam told local NBC News that they were very grateful and described their rescue as a miracle.

"We thank God for saving our lives at that moment. We were certain that we were going to die but the big rocks didn't crush us," Jacklyn said. "It's really hard to explain as we got trapped for nearly eight hours, then got rescued. We believe we were saved for a purpose."

About 1,250 people have been displaced by the landslide, which occurred in PNG's Enga province early Friday. More than 150 houses were buried and about 250 houses abandoned.

"The houses are buried under around eight metres (26.3 ft) of dirt. So there is quite a lot of debris to get through," said CARE's McMahon.

Dangerous conditions

Water continued to flow under the debris, the UN migration agency said, making it extremely dangerous for residents and the rescue team to clear debris.

Tribal violence in the region has raised security concerns for road travel, with the military escorting convoys of rescue teams. Eight people were killed, and five shops and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday, the UN agency said

Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the UN migration agency's mission in PNG, told ABC television that emergency crews would continue to look for survivors until the residents asked them to stop.

Aktoprak said that the rescue team had eight vehicles but that he hoped to receive additional resources soon.

READ MORE: Media: More than 300 buried in Papua New Guinea landslide

Tribal violence in the region has raised security concerns for road travel, with the military escorting convoys of rescue teams. Eight people were killed, and five shops and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday, the UN agency said.

PNG gave arrest powers to its military in February amid an eruption of tribal violence that saw at least 26 men killed in an ambush.

The landslide hit a section of highway near the Porgera gold mine. Barrick has said the mine has enough fuel on site to operate for 40 days and other critical supplies for longer.