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A day of mourning in my adopted Country

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150 or 3000 depends who you believe


DANDONG, China/SEOUL (Reuters) - A train carrying explosives has blown up at a station in North Korea, killing 150 people and injuring more than 1,000 in a blast that hurled debris and acrid smoke high into the sky, aid workers say.


Thursday's blast at Ryongchon station, which took place nine hours after a train carrying leader Kim Jong-il passed through, killed some schoolchildren in the town near North Korea's border with China, an Irish aid worker based in Pyongyang said.



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"They (North Korean authorities) have said that 150 people died in the explosion, including some schoolchildren, some buildings have collapsed, 800 residences were destroyed, and over 1,000 people were injured," Ann O'Mahony, the regional director of Concern, told Irish state radio RTE on Friday.


North Korean officials said railworkers were trying to uncouple two carriages carrying dynamite and link them to another train.


"They got caught in the overhead electric wiring. The dynamite exploded and that was the cause of the explosion," O'Mahony said.


Russia's Tass news agency reported from Pyongyang that the explosives were to be used to build an irrigation canal.


International aid agencies have been invited to visit the scene of the train blast on Saturday, O'Mahony said. A Pyongyang representative of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office also received the invitation, Brussels said.


Rescue teams were scouring the rubble of 1,850 households levelled by the blast, John Sparrow, a regional delegation spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters.


The fiery blast, which sent plumes of acrid smoke billowing over the town and rained debris for miles (km) around, was caused by rail cars laden with explosives, possibly for mining, Sparrow told Reuters after speaking to Red Cross officials at the scene.


Doctors in a hospital in the nearby Chinese border city of Dandong said they were ready to cope with a major emergency because impoverished North Korea's medical system is in ruins.


"This accident is likely to have become tremendous in scale," South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun told reporters.


An intelligence source in the South said there was no hint of sabotage or an attempt on the life of Kim, who passed through en route home from a rare and secretive trip to China.


Jeung said Seoul viewed the blast as an accident.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said North Korea had told the Russian embassy in Pyongyang that a major train accident had occurred.


"We were told that the accident had occurred, the circumstances were being clarified and that as soon as that happened we would be provided with more information," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow after a conference of Asian ministers.




South Korean media, quoting witnesses and Chinese sources, put the toll at up to 3,000 people killed or injured. The world's worst rail disaster to date was in India in 1981 when at least 800 people died after a crowded train was hit by a cyclone.


While North Korea, one of the world's most secretive and heavily militarised countries, kept silent more than 24 hours after the blast at around 1 p.m. on Thursday (0400 GMT), countries the world over were lining up to help.


In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross federation -- the world's largest disaster relief network -- said many of its 181 national societies were eager to provide relief supplies.


"Everybody is asking how they can help," she said. "But we don't know the needs yet."


North Korean television devoted its evening news broadcast to reports on Kim's China trip and did not mention the disaster.


Kim usually travels in a luxury armoured train -- a gift to his father from Stalin -- because he is believed to fear flying.


A Chinese doctor in Dandong, about 50 km (30 miles) from the accident site, said staff were gearing up for a crisis.


"They told us to get prepared," the doctor told Reuters. "They only informed us that thousands were dead or injured."


Reports were emerging of widespread destruction in the town.


One South Korean report said a passenger train packed with Chinese travellers was in the station when the accident happened, and another that schools and houses were apparently hit.


Satellite photographs of the town posted on various websites showed it swathed in billowing dark smoke. The CIA's website says Ryongchon has a population of 130,000 and officials in Seoul say there are fuel storage sites in and around the town.


The impoverished North's creaking medical system would be hard pressed to cope with a large number of casualties -- particularly complicated burns cases.


South Korea's Yonhap news agency said an emergency had been declared in the area, 15 km (10 miles) south of the Yalu river border with China near the Yellow Sea.


"The station was destroyed as if hit by a bombardment and debris flew high into the sky," Yonhap said, quoting unidentified Chinese sources.


"The high casualty figure was because the accident occurred in a densely populated area," Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, quoting one unidentified source.


Pyongyang rarely reports on accidents and only belatedly sought outside aid after floods and a famine in the 1990s.


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