The landslide swept through two villages, covering the area in mud and leaving more than 40 people missing [Reuters]

Rescuers were pulling bodies from the debris of a landslide that struck mountainous central Papua New Guinea, a disaster official said Wednesday. Local news media reported that as many as 60 people were dead or missing.

At least four bodies had been recovered by Wednesday evening, though the full extent of the damage to villages hit by Tuesday's landslide was not immediately known, said Martin Mose, the director of the South Pacific island nation's National Disaster Center.

"We are expecting more [bodies]," Mose said. "I am unwilling to put a number on that until I get confirmation from my team."

The National newspaper reported that 40 bodies had been recovered and 20 people were still missing following the landslide in the central town of Mendi.

The landslide carved a 1.5 kilometre trail of destruction across the remote landscape, Mose said, leaving roads to the villages cut off.

Photos from the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier showed scores of villagers searching a gigantic mound of dirt for survivors and victims.

Francis Potape, a politician in the affected region, told Radio Australia's indigenous language service that the landslide completely covered two villages while people slept.

"There are people buried underneath and a number of them are, from what I have heard, children," The National newspaper reported Potape as saying.

The Post Courier reported that Peter O'Neill, the prime minister, would fly to the state later on Wednesday.

Source: Agencies