HYDERABAD, India (AFP) - A passenger train rammed into a school bus in southern India on Thursday killing 20 people, mostly young children, officials said in the latest fatal accident on the country's rail network.
The train collided with the bus carrying about 30 children as it drove across an unmanned level crossing in the state of Telangana, dragging the mangled vehicle down the tracks, officials said.
"There are 20 confirmed dead based on railway inputs. A lot of people who are critically injured were shifted to different hospitals," K. Samba Siva Rao, a spokesman for South Central Railway, told AFP.
The bus had been travelling to school when the accident occurred in the village of Masaipet about 62 kilometres from state capital Hyderabad.
Large crowds poured over the accident site in Medak district trying to move twisted metal to retrieve small bodies trapped inside, television footage showed.
Parents who reached the site were seen wailing, crouched next to their dead children drapped in white sheets. A small crane and a digger tried to lift wreckage, while school bags were seen stacked alongside the tracks.
Grieving and angry parents also gathered outside a nearby hospital where the injured children, some in a critical condition, were taken. Some parents called for the sacking of senior railway officials over the tragedy.
Railways minister Sadanand Gowda blamed the bus driver for the tragedy, saying it appeared he did not stop at the crossing to check for trains.
"As per the preliminary information received, the incident occurred due to the negligent driving by the driver of the school bus," he told parliament.
The children went to Kakatiya Techno School, in the nearby town of Toopran. The school teaches children as young as two and a half years old, according to its website.
Local police deputy inspector general N Suryanaarayana said "12 students along with the driver died on the spot." "The cause of the accident and whose mistake it is we are investigating," he told AFP.
However railway official Mr Rao said 20 people were confirmed dead, a figure backed up by an unnamed official from the school.
"We know for a fact that 20 children have died so far. The children were very young, from the nursery level to the sixth standard," the official told AFP from the site, his voice breaking.
Students in sixth standard are normally aged nine or ten in India.
"The train dragged the bus for 100 yards after the collision," he added.
The train was travelling from the city of Nanded in Maharashtra state to Hyderabad in neighbouring Telangana. No one on the train was badly injured, officials said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office expressed his condolences to the families of those killed, adding in a tweet that he "prays for the speedy recovery of those injured." Railways minister Mr Gowda announced 200,000 rupees (S$5,000) in compensation for the families of those killed.
Deadly train accidents are common on India's railways, whose vast and rundown network carries tens of millions of people daily.
In 2012 a government report said almost 15,000 people were killed every year on the network, describing the deaths as an annual "massacre" due mainly to poor safety standards.
In May, 26 people were killed when a passenger express travelling in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh ploughed into a stationary freight train.
An express train ploughed into a crowd of Hindu pilgrims in eastern India in August last year, killing 37.