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By Jack Kim and Juliana Liu
Seoul/Dandong, China - A catastrophic rail explosion in North Korea killed at least 154 people, including 76 students, China's Xinhua news agency said, quoting a senior rescue official.
Xinhua said more than 1 300 had been injured in Thursday's blast that flattened part of the town of Ryongchon near the Chinese border and sent debris flying for miles around.
North Korea on Saturday blamed carelessness for the explosion as international relief teams headed to the site and offers of aid flowed in response to fiercely independent Pyongyang's unprecedented appeal for help.
A brief North Korean state news agency report said the blast had occurred during the shunting of a train carrying chemical fertiliser and "tank wagons".
It gave no casualty toll but described the damage as "very serious". British diplomats said on Friday North Korean officials had told them that several hundred people had been killed and thousands injured.
Xinhua quoted Korean official Jang Song-gun, in charge of rescue efforts at Ryongchon, as saying that at least 154 people had been confirmed dead.
"The blasts occurred...due to a short circuit when an electrical pole nearby was knocked down after an oil tanker collided with two carriages loaded with ammonium nitrate fertiliser during the shunting of wagons," Jang was quoted as saying.
At the Chinese border town of Dandong on Saturday, relatives of tourists on a group trip to North Korea waited anxiously for their return.
South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun announced immediate emergency aid of $1-million and said Seoul relief officials would meet North Korean counterparts on Monday at Panmunjom, the truce village set in the Demilitarised Zone between the two rival states.
For its part, China - the North's giant neighbour and closest ally - offered $1,2-million in emergency relief and President Hu Jintao telephoned North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with his condolences.
"The Chinese government decided to provide emergency aid materials to the DPRK (North Korea)," Xinhua said. "China's relevant authorities have made preparations for rescuing and treating the injured and providing other assistance."
This assistance, to include medicine, medical equipment and tents, would be sent in a few days, the agency said.
The blast occurred just hours after a train carrying Kim Jong-il home from Beijing passed through Ryongchon. Kim had been talking with Chinese leaders about the protracted nuclear weapons crisis which has focused world attention on Pyongyang.
An intelligence source in South Korea said there was no hint of sabotage or of an attempt on Kim's life.
The United States, which bracketed North Korea with Iran and pre-war Iraq in an "axis of evil" and is the main protagonist in the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear programme, said it was willing to help with the disaster relief.
A UN aid assessment team left Pyongyang on Saturday for the blast site.
"For the government to ask for assistance the day after an occurrence like that is very, very rapid," said Masood Hyder, the World Food Programme country co-ordinator for North Korea.
UN agencies and the Red Cross had begun forwarding aid as early as Thursday, he added.
Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the government appreciated the "willingness expressed by the governments of various countries and international bodies and organisations to render humanitarian assistance...".
In Geneva, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it had received a request for international help from Pyongyang on Friday afternoon.
Pyongyang rarely reports on accidents and only belatedly sought outside aid after floods and a famine in the 1990s.
South Korean media, quoting witnesses and Chinese sources, initially 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.
An Irish aid worker based in Pyongyang said North Korean officials had told her that the blast destroyed more than 1 800 homes. South Korea's KBS TV said the area around the station had been "reduced to ashes".
Kim usually travels in a luxury armoured train - a gift to his father from Stalin - because he is believed to fear flying.