Death Toll from Papua New Guinea Landslide Rises to Over 670
Death Toll from Papua New Guinea Landslide Rises to Over 670

Port Moresby: The International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Sunday increased its estimate of the death toll from a massive landslide in Papua New Guinea to more than 670 people. Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the UN migration agency's mission in the South Pacific island nation, said the revised death toll was based on calculations by Yambali village and Enga provincial officials, noting that more than 150 homes had been buried by Friday's landslide. The previous estimate had been 60 homes.

"They are estimating that more than 670 people are under the soil at the moment," Aktoprak told The Associated Press. Local officials had initially put the death toll on Friday at 100 or more. By Sunday, only five bodies and a leg of a sixth victim had been recovered. Emergency responders in Papua New Guinea were moving survivors to safer ground on Sunday as tons of unstable earth and ongoing tribal warfare in the country’s Highlands complicated the rescue effort.

The South Pacific island’s government is considering whether to officially request more international support. Rescue crews have given up hope of finding survivors under 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 feet) of earth and rubble, Aktoprak said. “People are coming to terms with this, so there is a serious level of grieving and mourning,” he added.

Government authorities are establishing evacuation centers on safer ground on either side of the massive swath of debris, which covers an area the size of three to four football fields and has cut the main highway through the province.

“Working across the debris is very dangerous, and the land is still sliding,” Aktoprak said. In addition to the blocked highway, convoys that have transported food, water, and other essential supplies to the devastated village 60 kilometers (35 miles) 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. “This could basically end up in carjacking or robbery,” Aktoprak said. “There is not only concern for the safety and security of the personnel, but also the goods because they may use this chaos as a means to steal.”

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 moving survivors to “more stable ground” was an immediate priority along with providing them with food, water, and shelter. The military was leading those efforts.

The numbers of injured and missing were still being assessed on Sunday. Seven people, including a child, had received medical treatment by Saturday, but officials had no details on their conditions.

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

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