As many as 60 people are feared dead after a massive landslide wiped out an entire village in a scene of "utter devastation" in Papua New Guinea, reports and aid workers said Wednesday.
The disaster struck near a huge ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project in the country's rugged southern highlands on Tuesday as people slept, leaving a trail of destruction.
PNG media said 40 bodies had been recovered and another 20 people were still missing.
The director of PNG's National Disaster Centre, Martin Mosi, said it appeared lives had been lost but he could not verify how many.
"The numbers are fluctuating and they need to be verified, but yes, there could very well be casualties," he told AFP.
Staff from his office were en route via helicopter and he said once they were on the ground, he would have a clearer picture.
"It was a big landslide and it covered a big area where there used to be small hamlets, so we are expecting a number of deaths," Mosi added.
The Pacific nation's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill was also rushing to the scene, near Tari.
"He has just left and will have a look at the landslide area and see what assistance is needed," an official in his office said Wednesday morning.
Nanduka Yandi, an aid worker for US-based NGO Population Services International, was at the scene of the landslide soon after it happened on Tuesday and said many people were killed, with few escaping the carnage.
"It was really huge. It covered 42 houses and only three or four people managed to escape. Everyone else died," he told AFP by telephone.
"It is quite remote and yesterday there was hardly anyone here to dig out the bodies or help people. People lost their entire families. They are in shock."
He described the scene as "utter devastation".
"Tonnes of mud and huge stones came down. It destroyed the whole area."
He recounted how one guest house owner was not in his home at the time and returned to find his wife, children and mother and father all missing.
Yandi said it had been raining in the area at the time, although some locals quoted by the media claimed the landslide was caused by blasting at a nearby quarry.
An aerial shot of the disaster showed mud and other debris extending for at least one kilometre (half a mile) across a forested area.
A spokeswoman for ExxonMobil said all its personnel were accounted for and it was in close contact with the Natural Disaster Centre.
"We have closed down work in the surrounding area," she said.
ExxonMobil's Aus$16 billion ($16.8 bn, Dh61.8bn) LNG project is due to begin production in 2014 and will see PNG's natural gas sold across Asia for the next 30 years.
Local MP Francis Potape told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he feared there could be further landslides as the area was still very unstable.
"We could still see rocks still coming down in front of our eyes and we could also see water trapped in the mountainside rushing out," he said.
ABC said the main road in the area had been cut in half, hindering rescue workers' attempts to reach the scene.