| The train which connected South and North Korea during the 1950 Korean War on display in Paju, South Korea. (AFP)
Dadong (China)/ Seoul, April 23 (Reuters): North Korea said today several hundred people were killed and thousands injured in a train explosion and issued a rare appeal for international help to deal with the disaster.
Britain’s foreign office quoted North Korean officials putting the death toll at several hundred in the blast which razed part of the town of Ryongchon, near the Chinese border.
“North Korean officials are saying there are several hundred dead and several thousand injured,” the foreign office spokeswoman said in London. She said the information had been passed to London by Britain’s ambassador to North Korea but stressed they were not his figures.
In Geneva, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it had received a request for international help from Pyongyang this afternoon.
The request did not go into detail but the appeal was echoed by North Korea’s ambassador to the UN in New York who said the accident had been “due to carelessness”. “We need the help of the international community. emergency relief,” envoy Pak Gil Yon told Reuters Television.
North Korea’s media has made no mention of yesterday’s blast but the reclusive and impoverished communist state has accepted offers of help from international aid and relief agencies.
Pyongyang rarely reports on accidents and only belatedly sought outside aid after floods and a famine in the 1990s.
Reliable figures on the number of dead have so far been scant. The OCHA in Geneva, quoting figures from the Red Cross, said 50 bodies had so far been recovered from yesterday’s blast. But the regional director of Concern, a relief agency with an office in Pyongyang, said 150 people had died, including some schoolchildren.
A team of aid workers will go to the area tomorrow and Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted the Russian embassy in Pyongyang as saying four of its diplomats would go to the blast site, also today, to try to get a clearer picture of what happened. International aid agencies have also been invited to visit the scene of the train blast.
Besides WFP, the UN’s children’s agency Unicef, the Red Cross and representatives of the some 20 non-governmental organisations will travel to the area to evaluate needs, said spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume in Geneva. Unicef said it was already sending enough basic medicines to the local hospital to treat 2,500 people.
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 blown off the track during a cyclone.
The explosion took place nine hours after a train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il passed through on his way back from a visit to China.
An Irish aid worker based in Pyongyang quoted North Korean officials as telling her the blast was caused by overhead electrical wires touching carriages carrying dynamite.
“They told us that 150 people had died, including some school children,” Anne ’Mahony, the regional director of Concern, said, adding that at least 1,000 injured were being treated in three local hospitals.
The blast also destroyed more than 1,800 homes, she said. South Korea’s KBS TV said the area around the station was “reduced to ashes”.
“They were trying to move these railway carriages to connect them to another train and they got caught in the overhead electric cable and that detonated the dynamite which caused the explosion,” ’Mahony said by telephone from Pyongyang.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency quoted North Korean government sources as also saying the blast was caused by an electrical accident.