(BBC) – At least 14 people have died after a powerful earthquake caused landslides in a remote region of Papua New Guinea (PNG), officials say.
A 7.5-magnitude quake rattled villages and a large gold mine in the country’s Enga province on Monday morning.
There are unconfirmed reports that the death toll could be as high as 30, with details of “extensive” damage emerging.
The tremor caused ExxonMobil to shut its $19bn (€15bn) liquefied natural gas plant, PNG’s biggest export earner.
A number of buildings collapsed and roads were blocked by the landslides. Some phone lines were also cut, Reuters news agency reports.
US seismologists said the initial quake struck 90 km (56 miles) south of Porgera at about 03:45 local time on Monday (17:45 GMT on Sunday), with dozens of aftershocks, including a 5.7 quake on Tuesday afternoon.
Fears death toll will rise
Twelve people were killed when two buildings collapsed in the provincial capital of the Southern Highlands, Mendi, Reuters reports, citing a nurse at a local hospital.
A resident in Mendi said she feared “the ground might open up and swallow us” when her thatched roof collapsed.
“When we came out we barely recognised everything around us, nothing was familiar to us,” Agnes Kep told the Post Courier newspaper. “The house or tree that was there wasn’t there anymore.”
Police have so far said that 14 people have been confirmed dead, including three from Poroma, south of Mendi. Local media quote a Catholic priest saying that those killed in the quake-triggered landslides include four children.
The landslides are making it difficult for rescue teams to reach the region, AFP news agency reports.
An estimated 300 people were injured and unconfirmed reports suggest that several others have been killed in nearby Kutubu and Bosavi.
The governor of Hela province, Philip Undialu, told local media the damage was “extensive”.
“Our police station, courthouse, hospital … even private houses have been ripped apart or sunk into the ground,” Mr Undialu said from the country’s capital, Port Moresby.
Miners Barrick Gold Corp and Ok Tedi Mining reported damage to infrastructure and a local power station.
The US oil company ExxonMobil said it has shut the two liquefied natural gas processing units at its plant on the coast near Port Moresby, according to Reuters.
The company earlier shut its gas production plants in Hela province.
Its Australian partner company, Oil Search, also halted oil and gas production and said it would take them a week to assess the damage to their operations in the area.
Earthquakes are common in Papa New Guinea, which sits on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, a hotspot for seismic activity.
Part of the country’s northern coast was destroyed by a tsunami in 1998, caused by a 7.0 earthquake, which killed about 2,200 people in the nation of 7 million.