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'Electrical Contact' Caused Train Collision, North Korea Says - 2004-04-24

A convoy of international humanitarian workers has traveled to the site of a massive explosion near North Korea's border with China to provide assistance. The emergency aid mission comes as the secretive communist state officially acknowledged the accident, calling it "very serious," while a report from the scene cited at least 154 dead and 1,300 injured.

North Korea's official news agency, KCNA, said Saturday that the explosion in the city of Ryongchon was caused by "electrical contact" due to human "carelessness" during the shunting of two trains loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

China's official Xinhua news agency quoted a North Korean rescue official at the scene, Jang Song Gun, as saying at least 154 people had died, including 76 students.

Mr. Jang was quoted by Xinhua as saying that three train carriages - two carrying fertilizer and one oil tanker - were involved in a collision at the Ryongchon station. He reportedly said that an electric pole was knocked over by the collision, igniting the explosion.

British diplomats were quoted Friday as saying they were told by officials that thousands had been injured in the blast. Xinhua's Saturday report from the scene put the number of injured at 1300. Satellite photographs have shown that the area around the blast site was leveled, and Xinhua reported two large craters at the scene.

North Korea rarely admits to disasters like this one, at least publicly. According to reports by foreign governments and intelligence agencies, Pyongyang's first reaction after the explosion on Thursday was to cut off telephone contact with Ryongchon, in an attempt to create a news blackout.

Saturday's official acknowledgment of the disaster not only comes just two days after the accident took place, but was unusually detailed for the notoriously secretive communist state.

News of the explosion had already been reported, however, with officials of the United Nations, the Red Cross and other agencies announcing on Friday that their organizations had been asked by the North Korean government for help.

A convoy of aid workers from the capital, Pyongyang, was due to reach the disaster site, near the Chinese border, by midday Saturday. U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Eggeland said his crews were planning to take medical kits and relief supplies from U.N. stockpiles that were already located inside North Korea.

Individual countries are also stepping in with offers of help. China, North Korea's chief ally, offered one-point-two-million dollars in relief aid, and South Korea offered another $1 million in aid. KCNA said the North Korean government appreciated the offers of assistance from both agencies and governments.

The explosion reportedly occurred some nine hours after a train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il passed through Ryongchon station, en route home from a visit to China. At the moment, the proximity of the two incidents appears to be a coincidence.

The United Nations and other aid agencies have been providing assistance to North Korea since the mid 1990s, when floods and mismanagement in the agricultural sector caused a series of crop failures and widespread famine in the country.