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UN, Red Cross  to Rush Aid to Scene of N. Korean Train Collision - 2004-04-23

The United Nations and the International Red Cross are preparing to rush aid to the site of train collision and blast in North Korea. Officials say they now have information that at least 54 people were killed and more than 1,200 injured in the disaster, but the toll could ultimately be much higher.

The first confirmed details of the disaster came from relief workers a day after satellite images showed a large plume of smoke over Ryongchon, a densely populated transportation hub near the border with China.

John Sparrow, with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Beijing, said North Korean Red Cross workers arrived at the scene on Friday.

"They have been told by the authorities that the disaster was caused by rail cars of explosives, explosives of the type that you use in commercial work, in mining or such things," he said.

Red Cross officials say thousands of homes may have been destroyed in the explosion, and there are fears rescue workers will find large numbers of dead and injured. The area is heavily industrialized.

The United Nations World Food Program also is sending aid and workers to the area, with the permission of the North Korean government. The North's secretive communist government rarely lets outsiders in, and has yet has made no public statements about the disaster, but accepting aid is a tacit acknowledgment of the problem.

Mr. Sparrow says the Red Cross will be ready to send assistance quickly to the impoverished nation.

"We are in a fairly good position to respond because we have a relief center within 20 kilometers of that town," he said. "We can provide shelter for people. We have tents, kitchen sets, all that kind of material there that can provide shelter in this kind of emergency for people who may be homeless."

He said it was likely that North Korean hospitals - with limited supplies and staff - would be struggling to cope with a large number of injured.

Hospital officials across the border in Chinese city of Dandong said they had been put on alert.

The explosion happened hours after a train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had passed through the area, on his return from a trip to China.

Witnesses at the border crossing at Dandong said traffic - including rail service - between the two countries Friday appeared to be normal.