Emergency convoy takes provisions to survivors of devastating landslide in Papua New Guinea


MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — An emergency convoy was delivering food, water and other provisions Saturday to stunned survivors of a landslide that devastated a remote village in the mountains of Papua New Guinea and was feared to have buried scores of people, officials said.

An assessment team reported “suggestions” that 100 people were dead and 60 houses buried by the mountainside that collapsed in Enga province a few hours before dawn Friday, said Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission in the South Pacific island nation.

Aktoprak conceded that if the number of buried houses estimated by local authorities was correct, the death toll could be higher.

“The scale is so big, I wouldn’t be surprised if there would be more casualties than the earlier reported 100,” Aktoprak said. “If 60 houses had been destroyed, then the number of casualties would definitely be much higher than the 100.”

Only three bodies had been recovered by early Saturday from the vast swath of earth, boulders and splintered trees that struck Yambali, a village of nearly 4,000 people that is 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest of the capital, Port Moresby.

Medical treatment was provided to seven people, including a child, Aktoprak said. He had no information about the extent of their injuries.

“It is feared that the number of casualties and wounded will increase dramatically,” said Aktoprak, who is based in Port Moresby.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said Friday he would release information about the scale of the destruction and loss of life when it becomes available.

All food gardens that sustain the village’s subsistence farming population were destroyed and the three streams that provide drinking water were buried by the landslide, which also blocked the province’s main highway.

A convoy left the provincial capital of Wabag carrying food, water and other essentials to the devastated village 60 kilometers (35 miles) away, Aktoprak said.

Village local Andrew Ruing said the survivors were in desperate need.

“People — they cannot cry or they cannot do anything, because it’s difficult for them,” Ruing said in a video shown by Australian Broadcasting Corp. “Because such a situation has never happened in history. And therefore, we are calling on the national government, the people on the ground, or the business houses, the heights from everywhere, anywhere — we are seeking assistance from.”

Aktoprak said that besides food and water, the villagers had an urgent need for shelters and blankets. Relief would be targeted to the most vulnerable, including children, women, and disabled and older people, he said.

The relief effort was delayed by the landslide closing the province’s main highway, which serves the Porgera Gold Mine and the neighboring town of Porgera.

The landslide debris, 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 feet) deep, also knocked out power in the region, Aktoprak said.

The unstable soil posed risks to the relief effort as well as to communities downhill.

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 the most populous South Pacific nation after Australia, which is home to around 27 million.

The United States and Australia are building closer defense ties with the strategically important nation, where China is seeking closer security and economic ties.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said their governments stood ready to help respond to the landslide.

Biden, who was to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Papua New Guinea a year ago but canceled the trip to focus on a debt crisis in Congress, said he was heartbroken by the loss of life and devastation.

“Our prayers are with all the families impacted by this tragedy and all the first responders who are putting themselves in harm’s way to help their fellow citizens,” Biden said in a statement.

“The United States stands with Papua New Guinea — our close partner and friend — today and always,” Biden added.

Albanese posted on the social media platform X: “All Australians grieve for our brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea after the terrible landslide.”

Australia is Papua New Guinea’s near neighbor and most generous provider of foreign aid.

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