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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 April, 2004, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
North Korea station 'obliterated'
The blast left a huge crater
The blast left a huge crater
Foreign aid workers who were allowed to visit the site of Thursday's train blast in North Korea say they found a scene of utter devastation.

They say the area around the station at Ryongchon is totally obliterated and damage extends for four kilometres.

It was feared hundreds had died but the Red Cross says it does not expect the official figure of 154, which includes many children, to increase much.

North Korea says "carelessness" caused the massive blast.

The exact circumstances are still not clear but it appears power cables touched rail wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertiliser.

The primary school had just ended when the explosion happened
WHO official
The North Koreans, who broke their silence two days after the accident, allowed foreign aid officials and diplomats to go to the scene on Saturday to assess the situation.

"There was just rubble everywhere and very large craters in the ground," Red Cross official Jay Matta told the Associated Press after visiting Ryongchon.

Buildings in an area of several hundred metres have been totally flattened, he said.

When reports first emerged of the accident it was feared thousands could have been killed or injured.

The official number of dead has been put at 154, including 76 schoolchildren.

Of the 1,300 injured, some 300 are said to have been taken to hospital. Aid workers say they do not expect these figures to increase significantly.

Most people were injured when they were trapped or thrown from buildings, Eigil Sorensen of the World Health Organisation told the French news agency, AFP.

Among the 129 public buildings destroyed or damaged are a hospital, a food processing plant, an agricultural college and a school.

"The primary school had just ended when the explosion happened," Mr Sorensen said. "Some children were on their way home, while others were trapped in the building."

Aid offers

North Korea's broadcast media have ignored the disaster so far.

But earlier on Saturday, the state news agency acknowledged in an uncharacteristically candid report that the damage was "very serious" and expressed its appreciation of offers of international help.

April 2004: Ryongchon, N Korea - Hundreds of casualties feared in station explosion
February 2004: Neyshabur, Iran - at least 300 killed when a runaway train explodes
June 2002: Dodoma region, Tanzania - at least 200 killed when passenger train collides with goods train
Feb 2002: Egypt - 300 killed in fire on train travelling to Cairo
June 1989: Ufa, Russia - More than 400 killed in gas explosion under two trains
Aug 1995: Uttar Pradesh, India - 300 killed in train collision
June 1981: Bihar, India - 800 killed when cyclone blows train into river

An aid convoy travelled to the scene on Saturday with badly needed supplies including antibiotics, bandages and painkillers, said John Sparrow, a Red Cross spokesman in Beijing.

China and South Korea have each promised about $1m in emergency aid to their neighbour.

Several other countries, including the UK, have also offered aid.

The United States, which has described North Korea as part of the "axis of evil" with Iran and pre-war Iraq, said it was willing to help with the disaster relief if asked.

It is unclear what medical treatment is available to those injured in the disaster, as North Korea's medical system has all but collapsed and the country is experiencing severe shortages of food and energy.

The accident happened just hours after the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, passed through Ryongchon on his way home from a trip to China.

He had been there to discuss North Korea's nuclear programme - a source of great tension with South Korea and that country's main ally, the US.

The BBC's Jonathan Head
"Aid workers say the North Korean health service has almost no ability to treat the injured"

N Koreans informed in radio broadcast
24 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
North Korea: The secret state
23 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Rumours linger over N Korea blast
24 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Kim Jong-il
31 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: North Korea's nuclear threat
28 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: North Korea
14 Feb 04  |  Country profiles

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