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

In this photo provides the International Organization for Migration, an injured person is carried on a stretcher to seek medical assistance after a landslide in Yambali village, Papua New Guinea, Friday, May 24, 2024. (Benjamin Sipa/International Organization for Migration via AP) In this photo provides the International Organization for Migration, an injured person is carried on a stretcher to seek medical assistance after a landslide in Yambali village, Papua New Guinea, Friday, May 24, 2024. (Benjamin Sipa/International Organization for Migration via AP)
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MELBOURNE, Australia -

Survivors searched through tons of earth and rubble by hand looking for missing relatives while a first emergency convoy delivered food, water and other provisions Saturday at the site 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.

Confirming a firm number of those who have died will be difficult “given it is considered culturally taboo to ask survivors of the status of their relatives,” Aktoprak said.

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

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

“It is feared that the number of casualties and wounded will increase dramatically,” he said.

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

Philip Mene, an IOM program associate, said survivors “are removing the rubble by hand” as they try to find their relatives.

“It is noticeable that relatives are coming to terms that the people below the debris are all but lost,” he said Saturday.

“Most likely hope recovering any survivors is slowly diminishing.”

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.

A convoy left the provincial capital of Wabag on Saturday morning carrying food, water and other essentials to the devastated village 60 kilometres (35 miles) away.

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.

Further convoys are planned for Sunday, including the arrival of heavy earth-moving machinery to help clear the six to eight metres (20 to 26 feet) of debris, earth and rocks which has fallen from the Mungalo mountain that sits above Yambali.

Emergency responders may face challenges using heavy machinery due to the risk and “cultural sensitivities of desecrating bodies that may be within the rubble," Mene said.

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.

It is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where much of the world’s earthquake and volcanic activity occurs. In March, the country was hit by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

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 atform 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.

Smith reported from Newcastle, Australia.

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