Landslides and collapsed buildings from a powerful earthquake in the remote Papua New Guinea highlands have reportedly killed as many as 30 people.

The 7.5 magnitude quake that rocked the region early Monday also damaged mining and power infrastructure and led ExxonMobil Corp to shut its $19 billion US liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, the country’s biggest export earner.

Two buildings collapsed and, along with a landslide, killed 12 people in Mendi, the provincial capital of the Southern Highlands, said Julie Sakol, a nurse at Mendi General Hospital, where the bodies were brought to the morgue.

“People are afraid. The shaking is still continuing. There’s nowhere to go but people are just moving around,” she said.

Papua New Guinea Earthquake

Debris from an enormous landslide caused by Monday’s earthquake covers an area in Tabubil township. (Luke Purre via Associated Press)

Dozens of aftershocks rattled the area, including a 5.7 quake on Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

Police in Mendi said 14 people were killed in the initial quake, including three in Poroma, south of Mendi.

“They were killed by landslides destroying families sleeping in their houses,” said Naring Bongi, a police officer in Mendi.

Provincial administrator William Bando said more than 30 people were believed to have been killed in the rugged region, about 560 kilometres northwest of the capital, Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported.

Relief efforts underway

The PNG disaster management office said it was verifying the reports but it could take days to confirm a death toll.

With a lack of communications preventing a clear assessment of damage, aid agencies had not yet begun relief efforts, said Udaya Regmi, head of the International Red Cross in Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby.

“The magnitude of the earthquake is quite huge, so there must be an impact … but we cannot say how many people are actually affected and what they need,” Regmi said.

Indonesia Papua New Guinea Earthquake

Officials in Indonesia inspect damage to a mosque following the powerful quake in neighbouring Papua New Guinea. (BNPB/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the defence force was on standby to assist “when the extent of damage has been confirmed.”

“We know that there have been houses lost, roads cut by land slips and disruption to services,” he said in a statement.

ExxonMobil said communications with nearby communities remained down, hampering efforts to assess damage to its facilities that feed the LNG plant.

Miners Barrick Gold Corp. and Ok Tedi Mining also reported damage to infrastructure. 

Earthquakes are common in Papua New Guinea, which sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire,” a hotspot for seismic activity due to friction between tectonic plates.

Part of PNG’s northern coast was devastated in 1998 by a tsunami, generated by a 7.0 quake, which killed about 2,200 people. 

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