Ukrainians flee rail disaster fallout

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Hundreds of Ukrainians were evacuated from their homes yesterday after a train derailed and released a cloud of toxic gas that affected 14 villages. Twenty people were poisoned and required hospital treatment, but a government spokesman said there was no threat to their lives.

The freight train, carrying yellow phosphorus from Kazakhstan to Poland, derailed late on Monday near Lviv on the Polish border. Fifteen of the train's 58 wagons overturned and six caught fire. Yellow phosphorus - which is mainly used in fertilisers - is a highly toxic substance, which can combust spontaneously on contact with air at temperatures higher than 40C (104F). It can cause liver damage if consumed.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister, Oleksandr Kuzmuk, who was at the site, compared the accident to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986. "A disaster has happened," he said. "After the Chernobyl catastrophe we are dealing with a case that can pose a real threat for our people. It is an extraordinary event, the consequences of which cannot be predicted."

The poison cloud produced by the fire contaminated an area of 90 sq km (35 sq miles), a spokesman for the emergencies ministry said. Residents were advised to stay inside, not to use water from wells, eat vegetables from their gardens or drink the milk produced by their cows.

Of the 11,000 people living in the contaminated area, 815 were evacuated, the ministry said.