The train's derailed wagons are seen on the tracks about 65km north of Kamina, in the southern province of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Picture: Numbi Mathys

Kinshasa -

Rescue teams and medics on Thursday attempted to save survivors trapped in the mangled wreckage of a train that flew off the rails in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing at least 48.

“A special crane with a team specialised in derailments arrived on site at 11pm (21h00 GMT on Wednesday) to lift up the carriages,” health ministry official Felix Kabange Numbi said, after visiting the remote accident site with other officials.

A newly purchased locomotive hurtled off the track in a swampy region on Tuesday as the goods train, bursting with illegal passengers, rounded a bend about 65km north of Kamina in the south-east of the country.

The high speed on a curve caused 15 of the train's 19 cars to overturn, government spokesman Lambert Mende said.

The government late on Thursday revised downwards an initial death toll, saying that 48 people were killed, down from an earlier issued figure of 57.

The final toll stands at “48 dead and 160 injured, including 12 seriously”, Mende said, without giving details on why the figure had been lowered.

Other sources said the figure was higher.

Local human rights activist Timothee Mbuya said on Wednesday that “so far at least 100 bodies have been taken from the train and buried, because there's no morgue”.

Kabange Numdi said on Thursday that while at the site of the crash, he had spoken with “a woman whose leg was trapped by a carriage, and now they have just got her out”.

“I myself counted 40 dead bodies on Wednesday,” the doctor added. “This morning I was told that the toll had risen to 48. There are moreover 162 injured people and 11 seriously hurt. The seriously injured will be taken today to Lubumbashi.”

Lubumbashi is the capital of the mineral-rich Katanga province, about 600km distant from Kamina, where the train began its fateful journey. The planned destination was Mwene-Ditu in the diamond-mining province of Kasai-Oriental.

Witnesses said the train was carrying hundreds of passengers both inside and on top of its carriages, many of whom had paid an illegal reduced fare to ride the train without a proper ticket.

Many people were still trapped by the mangled wreckage, witnesses added after the accident.

A medical team from an army base in Kamina has gone to help survivors, while Martin Kobler, who heads the United Nations mission in the country (MONUSCO), said he had asked its personnel to bring all needed assistance.

Mende said it appeared that engine failure had caused the train to speed out of control, but added that an investigation was under way into the exact reason for the crash.

Train crashes are fairly frequent in the DRC, where the railway lines were built under Belgian colonial rule.

Little maintenance work has been done since independence in 1960 but the World Bank is currently financing a programme to refurbish the network. - Sapa-AFP