World

Papua New Guinea, struggling to provide post-quake aid, hit with deadly aftershock

A magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Papua New Guinea's mountainous Southern Highlands on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people, an official said a week after a larger quake flattened villages and killed at least 55 people.

New earthquake struck Wednesday 30 km from epicentre of last week's deadly 7.5-magnitude quake

File image made from video provided Feb. 28 shows damaged building in Mendi, Papua New Guinea, following the earthquake. Officials fear the toll could exceed 100 from last week's powerful earthquake, with more deaths reported from Wednesday's tremor. (Australia Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

A magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Papua New Guinea's mountainous Southern Highlands on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people, an official said a week after a larger quake flattened villages and killed at least 55 people. 

The tremor, shortly after midnight local time, struck just 30 kilometres southwest of the epicentre of last Monday's magnitude 7.5 quake that has left government and aid agencies scrambling to provide emergency supplies to the remote region.

Australia and New Zealand said on Wednesday they would increase aid to Papua New Guinea. Australia will deploy three helicopters this week to deliver aid, while New Zealand will send a second military plane to distribute medical equipment, hygiene kits and tarpaulins.

Wednesday's quake was the most severe of a series of aftershocks that have rattled the resource-rich region, about 600 kilometres northwest of the capital of Port Moresby. William Bando, the administrator of Hela Province, said initial reports put the death toll from the aftershock at 18. 

It is beyond the capacity of the provincial government to cope with the magnitude of destruction and devastation. Our people are traumatized and finding it difficult to cope.- William Powi, governor of the Southern Highlands province

"It appears Hides was hardest hit. We haven't heard about potential casualties there yet, but it is a big village with many people," he added.

Manasseh Makiba, Papua New Guinea's vice-minister for petroleum and energy who represents parts of Hela Province in parliament, said: "People are still being extracted from mud. People are still being taken to hospitals."

Local media outlets reported the death toll from the original quake had risen to 75. Earlier, government officials said 55 people had been killed.

Up to 140,000 affected, Red Cross estimates

A spokesperson at Papua New Guinea's National Disaster Centre said Wednesday that authorities were finalizing a final report into the casualties from the first quake.

James Komengi, a United Church project officer speaking from Tari, the capital of quake-affected Hela province, said his church's assessment and response centre had counted up to 67 deaths in that province alone.

Aid efforts are being hampered as rescue workers struggle to reach the highlands area as many roads are either badly damaged or blocked.

"It is beyond the capacity of the provincial government to cope with the magnitude of destruction and devastation," said William Powi, governor of the Southern Highlands province. "Our people are traumatized and finding it difficult to cope."

Powi said provincial authorities were trying to prioritize the greatest needs by getting people with severe injuries to medical centres, and providing water and medicine. He said help from abroad and from local aid agencies was slowly coming in.

The International Red Cross warned the situation could deteriorate if heavy rains hit the region.

"We are anxious to reach communities while there is a lull in what is usually a season of heavy rain. A big downpour could bring landslides in hillsides already destabilised by the earthquake, cause floods and contaminate water," said Udaya Regmi, director the International Red Cross in Papua New Guinea.

The Red Cross said its initial assessments indicate as many as 143,000 people could have been affected, with an estimated 500 injured and 17,000 displaced from their homes. Even in more accessible areas of the country, health facilities have been damaged.

ExxonMobil, which shut its $19-billion PNG liquefied natural gas (LNG) project after the first quake, said Wednesday its facilities in Hides, where it runs a gas conditioning plant, were safely shut in. All employees and contractors were safe.

With files from Associated Press

now