SEOUL�The Red Cross is reporting that a major explosion in North Korea has killed at least 54 people and injured 1,249, with nearly 2,000 homes destroyed, RFA�s Korean service reports. Marat Yunusob of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Pyongyang said 6,350 homes had also been damaged in the blast at Ryongchon, 20 kms from China's border.

"We have confirmed 54 deaths and 1,249 wounded," Yunusob said in a telephone interview. "We have five delegates on the site, and there is big destruction of houses... 1,850 houses are completely destroyed, and the number of partly destroyed houses is 6,350."

Many victims have already been sent for medical care to China, whose medical system is far better equipped than that in impoverished North Korea, he said. The Red Cross in China has already begun distributing emergency supplies for roughly 4,000 families affected by the explosion.

In a separate interview, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative for North Korea, Eigil Sorensen, described North Korea�s capacity to care for the victims was "very limited."

"The health services in the DPRK [North Korea] are generally in a very difficult situation, and their capacity to deal with a situation in this is very limited," he said.

It now appears that two trains carrying explosives for use in a railway station building project detonated at around midday Thursday, he said.

Earlier reports indicated that two trains carrying flammable fuels collided at Yongch'on Station in North Pyongyang Province near the capital, the YTN Cable television station quoted a Seoul government official as saying. South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Pyongyang had declared a state of emergency in part of the country following the blast, which caused widespread destruction.

"This incident caused a great number of casualties, and some witnesses reportedly said that the number of casualties may reach up to about 3,000," YTN said on its news Web site. "This government official said that this explosion accident appears to be a simple accident and is considered to have no political motive."

The United States said Thursday it would be willing to offer assistance to victims of the explosion. The State Department said there was no legal or policy barrier to such aid, but said it had no independent information about the explosion, the extent of damage or whether assistance would be needed or requested by Pyongyang.

North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il passed through the station just hours earlier on his return from a hush-hush visit to neighboring China, during which the standoff with the United States the isolated Stalinist state's nuclear weapons program was at the top of the agenda.

North Korean media broke silence on his visit to China after he was scheduled to return to the capital, suggesting he had in fact arrived safely. China's official Xinhua News Agency reported shortly after the blast that Kim had sent a telegram to President Hu Jintao after his return to Pyongyang, thanking him for the talks they held together.

In an apparent bid to reassure Chinese leaders that Kim was unaffected by the attack, the telegram said Kim had traveled by special train "through Tianjin, and returned to my own country after leaving Dandong [on the Chinese border with North Korea]." It thanked Hu for his warm welcome and hospitality, sending warm regards to China's leadership, and others Kim had met during his trip from Liaoning province, Beijing municipality and Tianjin municipality, Xinhua said.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency also reported thousands of casualties. Neither Yonhap nor YTN gave a breakdown of deaths and injuries.

Yonhap quoted sources in the Chinese city of Dandong that borders the North as saying the explosion occurred around 1 p.m. (0400 GMT)�nine hours after Kim's special train was reported to have passed on its way back to Pyongyang after a visit to China.

"The station was destroyed as if hit by a bombardment and debris flew high into the sky," Yonhap said, quoting unidentified Chinese sources.

The sources said cargo trains carrying gasoline and liquefied petroleum gas collided at Yonch'on station 50 kms (30 miles) south of the border. Yonhap also quoted a senior Defense Ministry official as saying the South's military�which eavesdrops on North Korea�had heard about the blast through "intelligence channels directed against the North." #####


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