Papua New Guinea police say 71 dead in floods

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PORT MORESBY, Nov 19 (Reuters) Floods in Papua New Guinea have killed more than 70 people and another 50 are missing after a week of heavy rain in the Pacific nation's east, authorities said today.

The floods have washed away about 450 houses in villages throughout the eastern Oro province, with roads, bridges and farmers' plots also destroyed, said Papua New Guinea police spokesman David Terry.

He said health authorities were now concerned about the spread of disease and hunger, with the death toll likely to rise.

''The people have been without food and water for several days now. Health authorities are expressing fears that water-borne diseases might affect the population,'' Terry said from Oro's provincial capital Popondetta.

The flooding followed days of heavy rains caused by tropical cyclone Guba, which has moved slowly across the Coral Sea and is currently sitting off northern Australia, to the south west of Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea provincial authorities have made a preliminary assessment of the damage, but are relying on reports radioed in from isolated villages.

Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare chaired an emergency cabinet meeting on the disaster today and said the flooding had affected about 145,000 people.

''Continuous heavy rains associated with category 1 cyclone Guba over the last couple of days have severely affected the entire province,'' Somare said in a statement.

Terry said the 50 missing people had not been seen for four days, and it was likely the death toll of 71 could rise.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the rain had caused severe flooding in the Oro and neighbouring Milne Bay provinces in Papua New Guinea, but could not confirm the death toll.

''The region has suffered substantial damage to infrastructure, including roads, bridges and telecommunications, making accurate reporting difficult,'' Downer said.

Downer said Australia was ready to give emergency relief once the extent of the disaster, and what help might be needed, was known.

Papua New Guinea, Australia's nearest neighbour, is a nation of about 6 million people, where about 85 percent of people depend on subsistence farming.

The areas affected by the floods include historic World War two battlegrounds around the village of Kokoda, where Australian forces turned back a Japanese land force.

Reuters SKB VP1252

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