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Papua New Guinea Reports Over 2,000 Buried In Friday’s Landslide

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A Papua New Guinean government representative officially asked the UN for international assistance, claiming that more than 2,000 people are believed to have been buried alive during last Friday’s landslide.

This amount nearly triples the 670 people the United Nations estimated were killed in the landslide that occurred in the island nation of the South Pacific. Despite an earlier report on Sunday indicating six recoveries, local authorities stated on Monday that only five bodies had been found; the reason for this revision is still unknown.

The acting head of the nation’s National Disaster Center, Luseta Laso Mana, claimed in a letter dated Sunday that the landslide in Yambali village, Enga province, “buried more than 2,000 people alive” and caused “major destruction.” The Associated Press was able to view the letter.

The International Organization for Migration, which is spearheading the international response, has not revised its estimate of 670 deaths in the absence of new information. Official estimates of the death toll have varied greatly since the tragedy, and it is unclear how they arrived at that figure.

Officials from Yambali village and the province of Enga calculated the death toll and came up with the figure of 670. They had previously estimated that only 60 homes had been buried. Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape’s office did not reply to inquiries seeking clarification on the government’s 2,000 estimate. Marape has promised to release information about the extent of the damage and casualties as soon as it becomes available.

The remoteness of the village, the absence of telecommunications, and the ongoing tribal warfare in the province make it difficult to assess the full extent of the disaster; consequently, military personnel are required to escort aid convoys and international relief workers. At least 26 tribal fighters and mercenaries, as well as an undetermined number of bystanders, lost their lives in an encounter in Enga in February.

Estimating the likely death toll becomes even more challenging when reliable census data is hard to come by. The government estimates that Papua New Guinea is home to about 10 million people, but a 2022 U.N. study found that figure may be as high as 17 million. It has been decades since there has been a precise census.

Relief efforts were also hampered by the fact that a 200-meter (650-foot) section of the province’s main highway was buried beneath debris that was 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 feet) deep. Mana indicated that the landslide would have a significant economic impact on the entire country.

The villagers have been searching for bodies with shovels and farming tools, but an excavator donated by a local builder has become the first heavy machinery to help. Working around the still-shifting debris is perilous.

Mana and Papua New Guinea’s defense minister, Billy Joseph, flew on Sunday in an Australian military helicopter from Port Moresby to Yambali, 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest, to assess the situation firsthand. Mana’s office posted a photo of him in Yambali handing a local official a check for 500,000 kina ($130,000) to purchase emergency supplies for 4,000 displaced survivors.

The visit aimed to determine whether Papua New Guinea’s government needed to request more international support. Earth-moving equipment from Papua New Guinea’s military was being transported to the disaster site, 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Lae.

Officials reported that traumatized villagers are divided over whether heavy machinery should be used to dig up the debris, potentially further disturbing the bodies of their buried relatives.

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