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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Deaths mount from Papua New Guinea quake as rescue efforts stepped up

Red Cross says 67 confirmed dead from February 26 earthquake and 17,000 homeless

Locals stand next to a damaged road near Mendi in Papua New Guinea's highlands region on February 27, 2018, a day after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck the area. Melvin Levongo / AFP
Locals stand next to a damaged road near Mendi in Papua New Guinea's highlands region on February 27, 2018, a day after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck the area. Melvin Levongo / AFP

The death toll from an earthquake that devastated Papua New Guinea's remote highlands last week was raised to at least 67 on Monday, while thousands more remain homeless and without food and clean water.

The recovery effort has been slow as aid workers grapple with blocked roads and power outages to reach villages cut off after the 7.5-magnitude quake struck on February 26 in the Pacific nation's mountainous interior.

Terrified locals in the Southern Highlands, Western, Enga and Hela provinces have also been hit by strong aftershocks, including two 6.0-magnitude tremors early on Monday.

Compounding the fallout was an announcement on Monday that the impoverished country's biggest-ever development - the PNG LNG project operated by US energy giant ExxonMobil - would be offline for up to eight weeks as the quake-hit facilities are repaired.

"The death toll reported by the National Disaster Centre and disaster management teams on Friday is 67," said Udaya Regmi, the PNG country head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"Around 143,000 people are affected and 17,000 people have been generally displaced because their homes are either fully or partially damaged and not in a condition to live in."

No official government death toll has been released.

Ms Regmi added that water and sanitation were major concerns for local communities, with relief workers unable to get bigger food trucks through to some areas because of damage to roads by landslides.

Relief efforts are slowly being expanded, with millions of dollars in aid pledged by the government, ExxonMobil and the Australian energy producers, Oil Search and Santos, which are involved in the gas project.

The Australian and New Zealand defence forces have started delivering aid, while the China Red Cross and Beijing have pledged financial assistance, according to the PNG Post-Courier.

Oil Search managing director Peter Botten, who travelled to the Highlands to survey the damage, said the impact "has been enormous, with many deaths in the region as well as the destruction of houses, schools, roads and bridges".

"Many communities are without basic necessities, such as food, clean water, shelter and medical support."

One week after the quake, the rescue effort is still a logistical challenge due to the remoteness of the regions affected, but CARE International's PNG programme director Anna Bryan said aid agencies were hoping to fly in relief supplies soon.

"Just to put it into perspective, the provinces are already amongst the most remote in the country and on a good day when you do have road access, it's a two-day drive at the shortest from the nearest coastal port," she said.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said last week the shutdown of the gas plant would have a "huge impact" on the economy, which is heavily dependent on its natural resources.

ExxonMobil PNG managing director Andrew Barry said production at the US$19 billion (Dh70bn) project would be restored as quickly as possible, adding that it was an "unprecedented event for the country" and the firm.