A large landslide in Papua New Guinea has buried more than 2,000 people, the authorities of the Pacific country told the UN on Monday, communicating a new toll much heavier than initially estimated.

“The landslide buried more than 2,000 people alive and caused significant destruction,” the country's national disaster management center told the UN office in the capital Port Moresby, according to a copy of a letter obtained by AFP.

A hillside village in Enga province, in the center of the archipelago, was almost completely wiped out when a section of Mount Mungalo collapsed around 3 a.m. Friday (5 p.m. GMT Thursday), burying dozens of houses and surprising the inhabitants in their sleep.

The estimated number of victims had already been raised to 670 this weekend, when rescuers realized that the village hit by the landslide had more inhabitants than expected.

The landslide caused “significant destruction of buildings, food gardens and had a major impact on the country's economy,” said the disaster management center.

“The situation remains unstable as the landslide continues to move slowly, representing a permanent danger for rescue teams and survivors,” authorities warn in their letter.

The scale of the disaster required “immediate and concerted actions by all actors”, including the army and national and regional responders.

The agency appealed for help from the international community, asking the United Nations to inform Papua New Guinea's development partners “and other international friends” of the situation.

Serhan Aktoprak, head of the UN migration agency based in Port Moresby, previously said rescuers were in a “race against time” to find survivors.

The emergency services are working in dangerous conditions, in particular because of “the stones (which) continue to fall and cause the ground to move”, specified Mr. Aktorprak.

“To make matters worse, groundwater is flowing under the debris, transforming the ground surface into a slide,” he added, adding that around 250 houses located nearby were evacuated as a precaution.

“This could trigger a new landslide,” warned the UN official, and represents a “serious risk” for rescuers and residents.

– Tribal violence –
Heavy equipment and excavators were expected to arrive in the disaster area but their arrival was delayed by tribal violence that broke out along the only access route, Aktoprak said.

“Many houses are burning and others are giving off smoke. Women and children have been displaced, and all the young people and men in the region are armed with bush knives,” he said, citing a report of an aid convoy attempting to reach the disaster site.

However, this violence is not “linked to the landslide”, he clarified.

“People are very sad. No one was able to escape. It is very difficult to collect information. We do not know who died because the registers are buried,” lamented the teacher from a neighboring village , Jacob Sowai with AFP.

Residents of nearby villages help dig up the bodies using spades and agricultural tools.

A nearby mining company, New Porgera Limited, agreed to provide mechanical excavators to assist rescuers and clear roads.

– Heavy rain –
For nearby residents, this slide must have been triggered by the heavy rains that fell on the region in recent weeks.

According to the World Bank, Papua New Guinea has one of the wettest climates in the world, and heavy rainfall regularly hits its humid highland regions.

According to scientists, variation in rainfall patterns due to climate change is increasing the risk of landslides in the country.

In March, at least 23 people died in a landslide in a neighboring province.

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