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N. Korea clinic struggling after train blast

Lack supplies and beds to treat hundreds injured

DANDONG, China -- Injured children lay on file cabinets as a crowded North Korean hospital struggled to cope without enough beds or medicine for hundreds of victims from last week's train explosion, an aid worker who visited the facility said yesterday.

Sinuiju Provincial Hospital, across the border from China, was treating 360 people injured in the blast, according to Tony Banbury, Asia regional director for the United Nations World Food Program. More than 60 percent of the victims were children, he said.

''They clearly lack the ability to care for all the patients," Banbury said.

The huge explosion Thursday in the North Korean town of Ryongchon, fed by oil and chemicals, killed 161 people and injured at least 1,300, officials said.

The death toll rose by seven yesterday, but it was unclear whether the higher number reflected new fatalities or simply newly-confirmed casualties. Aid agencies did not say whether they expected the number to increase further.

As relief workers assessed the damage, trucks carrying tents, blankets, canned food, and packages of instant noodles rumbled across the Chinese frontier into North Korea, part of a multinational offer of help; South Korea, Japan, and Australia also offered aid.

Eleven trucks from China crossed the bridge into North Korea yesterday, carrying $120,000 worth of aid. The trucks, driven by Chinese police, bore red-and-white banners saying, ''donations from the government of the People's Republic of China."

Lee Yoon Goo, the Red Cross chief in Seoul, proposed the coordination of relief efforts with the Red Cross in North Korea in a telephone message via Red Cross liaison officers at the truce village of Panmunjom, in the buffer zone where the Koreas have faced off since their war in the early 1950s.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of Australia said his country also would help if Pyongyang asks.

''But at this stage, they do seem to be coping, albeit not very well, with this disaster," Downer told Ten Network in Australia.

In Sinuiju's hospital, Banbury said the most serious injuries were suffered by children in a school struck by a wave of glass, other rubble, and heat. Many had serious eye injuries, he said.

Banbury said the hospital was ''short of just about everything" -- antibiotics, steroids, and painkillers. Equipment was not plugged in, suggesting it was broken or electricity was insufficient, and the number of beds was so meager that some children rested on file cabinets.

Pierette Vulthi, a UNICEF representative in Pyongyang, said the devastation at the school could have been far more lethal. She said the blast occurred just after noon, 10 minutes after the morning session ended, and many children already had left.

''It could have been much worse," Vulthi said.

Nearly half of the dead were children in the school, which was torn apart by the blast. The disaster also left thousands of Ryongchon residents homeless.

''They've been taken in by other families," John Sparrow, spokesman for the Red Cross in Beijing, said yesterday. ''We were fearing people on the streets. We breathed a big sigh of relief when we saw that wasn't the case."

Aid workers recounted seeing huge craters, twisted railroad tracks, and scorched buildings. But most of the 1,300 people that North Korean officials said were injured had been evacuated before aid workers arrived in nearby Sinuiju.

''People were cleaning up by hand and loading their meager belongings onto ox carts," Banbury said after visiting yesterday.

''They looked like World War I refugees."

UN officials estimated that 40 percent of Ryongchon was damaged.

North Korea's communist government relaxed its normally intense secrecy as it pleaded for international help.

It has attributed the disaster to human error, saying the cargo of oil and chemicals ignited when workers knocked the train cars against power lines.

The statement was unusually frank for a government that tightly controls information to its people as well as the world.

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