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Searchers looking for bodies

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, March 10, 2009) – A massive landslide yesterday cut off the Porgera gold mine from the rest of Papua New Guinea and diverted the Lai River, to sweep through a village near Wabag town in Enga Province yesterday.

Shocked provincial authorities and villagers were last night trying to determine whether the landslide or the river claimed any lives.

The disaster has left about 2,500 people homeless and swept away food gardens and hundreds of domestic animals. The 50m landslide moved down a steep mountain, buried the Highlands Highway and pushed the Lai River, which flows only metres away from the road, further out by about 500 metres.

The Lai had to create a new route and swept through Kemaumal village, taking with it food gardens and domestic animals but no one could say if any human lives were lost.

Villagers who were metres from the disaster site at the time of the landslip said it occurred suddenly with a big bang, catching the people unaware. "At the time of the disaster, a number of children were fishing while many of them were either in their houses or out in the gardens.

"I was doing the laundry just a few metres away from the disaster site when the earth moved down and buried the road before it pushed the river further into the village," Monica Vitus, one of the victims said.

She said all her clothes and a K50 [US$18] note she had in her bag were washed away as she fled for her life.

A majority of the villagers said properties which were either washed away by the river or buried by the landslip include trade stores,chicken farms, food gardens, pigs and personal effects.

Villager leader and teacher Michael Bleken said information on the death toll and value of property destroyed would be released today after an assessment, including a head count of the villagers, was made.

"Right now, we can’t establish who is buried and who is washed away. It happened suddenly when everyone was doing his or her thing and we can’t say who is missing," Mr. Bleken said.

The provincial government, Wabag district authorities and other villagers said assessment of the damage would be done this week.

Provincial works manager Robert Tela, who visited the disaster site, said it would take less than two days to clear the debris to reopen the highway but it might take extra days as government authorities talk to people from the affected village.

He said it would cost about K50, 000 [US$18,000] to clear the road, adding funds were available to get the job done. The villagers appealed to police and government authorities to control the movement of people near the disaster site, saying that there might be further landslips.

Trucks carrying supplies to the Porgera gold mine were stranded in Wabag.

Papua New Guinea Post-Courier:

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