Search & recovery a huge task in PNG's Southern Highlands. | Asia Pacific

Search & recovery a huge task in PNG's Southern Highlands.

Search & recovery a huge task in PNG's Southern Highlands.

Updated 29 February 2012, 10:35 AEDT

Papua New Guinea officials are still reluctant to estimate the number of people killed by a landslide in the remote Southern Highlands region.

Reports from PNG say dozens of people may have been buried by the kilometre-long landslide, near Tari .. with some local media putting the death toll at over 100 .. although this has NOT confirmed by authorities.

Asia Pacific understands at least 26 names of people listed as missing, have been given to local authorities.

Continuing wet weather is also likely to hamper search and rescue efforts.

Andrew Alphonse, senior reporter from the PNG Post Courier spent the day Tumbi village .. and he spoke to Asia Pacific on his mobile phone.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Andrew Alphonse, senior reporter, POST-COURIER newspaper, PNG, Tari, Southern Highlands

ALPHONSE: The local police and the authorities in Tari are yet to confirm the exact number of casualties or deaths. The number of people buried under the debris, under the landslide. The locals themselves have come up with about 26 names of people they believed lost or covered, buried underneath. These names were presented to the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill when he visited the site this afternoon.

LAM: And Andrew, you spent the day at the site of the landslide, can you tell us what you saw?

ALPHONSE: It is so huge, it will take quite some time before any of the rubbish or debris can be removed, before bodies can be found, because it is huge slabs of limestone, there's a river flowing underneath, there are trees which were uprooted. The landslip itself is about two kilometres long and about 400 to 500 metres wide, and it covered about 25 homes. And that's why at Tumbi, it is the project site of the PNG LNG plants are.

LAM: And as you said, the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill also inspected the area today. What did he have to say?

ALPHONSE: He expressed his sorrow to the people and the locals there who've lost their loved ones. He said it is one of the worst disasters ever, in this part of the country. He said the government would be responsible, to do what it can to bring normalcy back to the area. The government, he says, will be hosting a general emergency national council meeting, where he will be getting his cabinet to look for ways to get some money, and assist in the repatriation and also the retrieving of the bodies. The prime minister also said that he will also order an independent investigation, to establish the cause of the landslip, because the locals are blaming the development of the quarry nearby, had caused the entired mountain range or slope to come down.

LAM: And Andrew, what about rescue and recovery? Have any survivors been found in the debris so far?

ALPHONSE: There have been no survivors found. They have not retrieved any bodies, nor done any rescue operations. Soon after it happened, Exxon-Mobil decided to go in there, if they can save some lives, but the locals there, were reluctant and they would not allow them in. Exxon-Mobil wanted to help, but the locals did not allow them to go near there.

LAM: And Andrew, we heard last night, that many of those trapped by the deluge were children. Do you know why there were so many children?

ALPHONSE: The children lived with their parents, who had moved to the area. School is starting now in the next few weeks. Also, the locals told me that the parents went to work, they woke up at about four or five o'clock in the morning, to go the work at the project site - a pickup truck came to pick them. When the truck left, the children were left behind to sleep. It was still dark. Officially, the rescue and the rest of the operations have not commenced yet. It may commence on Friday, to try and retrive the bodies.

LAM: Andrew, are you saying, that the local authorities are not even trying to see if there are any survivors, because the situation is so grave and it's so difficult?

ALPHONSE: Exactly. Now the engineers and the National Emergency teams from Port Moresby, they've moved into Tari today, and they will access the site around there. And then from there, they'll do some studies on how they can go about picking up the bodies, with excavators, machines or if Exxon Mobil would be able to help, and then they can be able to finally start work. It is such a huge task.

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