SEOUL: As many as 3,000 people were killed or injured yesterday when two trains carrying oil and liquefied petroleum gas collided and exploded at a North Korean train station near the Chinese border, South Korean media reported.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly had passed through the station as he returned from China nine hours earlier.
It was not clear what caused the crash or if it was related to Kim's journey.
North Korean authorities declared a state of alert in the area where the crash occurred, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
It did not give details but said a type of “state of emergency” had been imposed around the town of Ryongchon.
In a sign of the accident's magnitude, the secretive North Korean government cut international phone lines to prevent news of the collision from leaking across its borders, Yonhap said, citing no sources.
The number killed or injured could reach 3,000, South Korea's all-news cable channel, YTN, reported, citing unidentified sources on the Chinese side of the border.
”The area around Ryongchon station has turned into ruins as if it were bombarded,” Yonhap quoted witnesses as saying.
“Debris from the explosion soared high into the sky and drifted to Sinuju,” a North Korean town on the border with China, it said.
Yonhap said the explosion occurred about 1pm at Ryongchon, a town 20km from the Chinese border.
It said Kim passed through hours earlier, returning to Pyongyang.
Yang Jong-hwa, a spokesman of South Korea's Unification Ministry, said her organisation could not immediately confirm the reports.
The ministry is in charge of relations with North Korea.
The Defence Ministry likewise was not commenting.
“We are aware of the news reports, but we will not make any comments at this stage,” said a spokesman speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
At the United Nations in New York, a North Korean diplomat said he had no information except what he had heard from outside reports.
North Korea is one of the world's most isolated countries and rarely allows outside journalists inside. News events within its borders are difficult to independently confirm.
YTN reported that the causalities included Chinese living in the North Korean border region, and that Chinese in Dandong – a bustling industrial city on Yalu River – were desperate to learn about their relatives. Some of the injured were evacuated to hospitals in Dandong, it said.
Chinese and North Korean traders frequently cross the border at Dandong.
North Korea's state-run news agency confirmed yesterday that Kim had made a secretive trip to China on Monday through Wednesday, but carried no comments on the reported explosion.
Masood Hyder, the World Food Programme co-ordinator in Pyongyang, said he was not sure if or when the government might inform his agency of the reported accident.
“It's not necessary that they would tell us,” he said by telephone. “Often it's the foreign news that confirms things even before they admit to it.” – Agencies
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