North Korea seeks help over massive rail disaster

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The Independent Online

North Korean authorities today accepted United Nations help to cope with the aftermath of yesterday's rail disaster, finally making at least a limited admission that it took place.

United Nations relief agencies have been given permission to travel to the site of the explosion for an "evaluation mission", said a spokeswoman for the World Food Program. The UN children's agency is planning to take medicines and first-aid supplies to the region.

Casualty figures may be lower than originally feared. The international Red Cross in Beijing said that at least 54 people died and 1,249 were injured when two trains carrying explosives collided in the bustling town of Ryongchon, causing widespread devastation. Although the toll is still expected to rise, initial reports had said as many as 3,000 people were killed or hurt.

The explosion leveled the train station, a school and apartments within a 500-meter (yard) radius, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, quoting Chinese witnesses. There were about 500 passengers and railway officials in the station at the time of the blast, it said.

Ryongchon has a reported population of 130,000 and is known for its chemical and metalwork plants.

An international Red Cross official said that the two trains that collided triggering the massive blast were carrying explosives similar to those used in mining and not fuel.

But there have even been various reports of what the trains were carrying. China's official Xinhua news agency said it was caused by the leaking of ammonium nitrate in one of the trains. Ammonium nitrate is used in some explosives, as a fertilizer, and in rocket fuel.

North Korea has remained silent on the disaster, despite confirmation of Thursday afternoon's blast in the bustling town of Ryongchon by the governments in Seoul and Beijing.

North Korea declared an emergency in the area while cutting off international telephone lines to prevent crash details from leaking out, the South's Yonhap agency reported. The North's official KCNA news agency still had not mentioned the disaster, a full day later.