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Violence and landslides block aid access to Papua New Guinea quake victims

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At least 132 people have been killed, 500 injured and about 43,000 uprooted from their homes, while 270,000 are urgently in need of assistance

By Jared Ferrie

PHNOM PENH, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Violence rooted in tribalism and frustration at the slow response following earthquakes in Papua New Guinea was blocking efforts to reach those in need, aid workers said on Thursday.

Three tremblors have hit Papua New Guinea, one of the world's poorest countries, since the remote, mountainous highlands region was rocked by a magnitude 7.5 quake on Feb. 26. The latest, a magnitude 6.3 aftershock, struck on April 7.

At least 132 people have been killed, 500 injured and about 43,000 uprooted from their homes, while 270,000 are urgently in need of assistance, aid agencies said, with the scale of the emergency testing the nation's finances and capacity.

The United Nations and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) said they had to withdraw teams from the Hela provincial capital of Tari after violence erupted on March 28.

"There were houses set on fire and some people were murdered in Tari," said Robyn Drysdale, a doctor and deputy humanitarian director with IPPF.

"It just means aid will be slowed even further, because aid workers won't want to go into those areas," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the capital, Port Moresby.

A spokesman for the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, said the situation in Tari was still tense and staff have remained in the Southern Highlands provincial capital of Mendi, where they were relocated.

In another incident on April 7, a group of men attacked a UNICEF convoy that was returning to Mendi after visiting health facilities in the Southern Highlands district of Nipa-Kutubu, said David McLoughlin, the agency's country representative.

"We know the marauders do not represent the PNG people who have been kind, helpful and grateful for our assistance," he said by email, adding that UNICEF "will continue to stay in the highlands to help children in need".

Drysdale said some people were frustrated with the slow delivery of aid, which was hampered by landslide damage to many of the roads in the mountainous region, which were already in poor condition.

She said tensions were also inflamed by long-running tribal rivalries over rights to land and resources, and payments made to groups by companies exploring for oil on traditional land.

The World Health Organization has warned of "the high potential of waterborne and vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks" in quake-affected areas.

Quakes 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.

(Reporting by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)