Papua New Guinea’s prime minister visits the site of a landslide estimated to have killed hundreds

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Papua New Guinea’s prime minister on Friday visited the site of a major landslide, which is estimated to have buried hundreds of villagers in the South Pacific island nation’s mountainous interior a week ago and left the ground too unstable for heavy earthmoving machines to help clear up the mess.

James Marape told hundreds who had gathered near the devastated Yambali village that the list of governments and world leaders who had sent their condolences included the United States, China, India, France, Malaysia and the Czech Republic. First on the list was U.K. King Charles III, Papua New Guinea’s constitutional head of state.

“My people are simple people. I want to say thank you for them to the global friends of PNG,” Marape said.

The first mechanized excavator arrived at the scene on Sunday, but it hasn’t been permitted to start removing the boulders, rocks and splintered trees that have buried a 150-to-200-meter (500-to-650-foot) stretch of the Enga province’s main highway.

The nation’s military had expected up to 10 excavators and bulldozers to be on the scene this week to help villagers who have used spades and farming tools to painstakingly retrieve bodies from the rubble, but have so far only found seven.

The United Nations estimates that 670 villagers died in the disaster, which immediately displaced 1,650 survivors. Papua New Guinea’s government has told the United Nations it thinks more than 2,000 people were buried.

Marape said that geotechnical reports in recent days found the area remains unstable.

“That’s why we haven’t used heavy machinery in case it triggers something,” Marape said. “A full assessment of the stability of the place will be carried out before we use heavy machinery.”

A dispute between local landowners and a nearby gold mine, plus the sensitivities of grieving villagers, are also obstacles to the mechanized removal of a huge quantity of debris.

Enga Gov. Peter Ipatas has urged local landowners not to deny access to the disaster site to earthmoving equipment owned by the Porgera Gold Mine, which is 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, as part of their financial dispute with the mine’s owner.

The mine has been isolated by the landslide and has offered equipment to help clear the highway.

The mine’s manger, Karo Lelai, confirmed that an offer had been made, but didn’t respond to questions from The Associated Press about what equipment had been proposed and what the obstacles were to its deployment.

Local politician Jaman Yadam told the country’s The National newspaper that unless the mine’s owner met the landowners’ financial demands, “the landslip site will remain a mass burial site, cutting off road access to the mine.”

Some of the disaster survivors want the highway debris left as a memorial where they can place flowers to remember their dead, the International Organization for Migration reported.

Angela Kearney, who leads UNICEF in Papua New Guinea, visited Yambali on Friday and said that she was concerned by the traumatized children’s unwillingness to interact.

More than 40% than of the region’s population is under 16 years old, and around half of Papua New Guinea’s children are undernourished, UNICEF said.

“A shock like this can turn them into severe-acute malnutrition very quickly, so we need to get supplies and trained people to make sure we measure the kids, and we look at the most vulnerable ones very quickly,” Kearney said.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up