23 killed in fire on train in southern India: TV

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A fire on an overnight train killed at least 23 people on Saturday in southern India as it ripped through a carriage packed with sleeping passengers, local television networks reported.

The express train was travelling from the southern city of Bangalore to Nanded when the fire broke out in an air-conditioned carriage around 3:00 am (5:30 am Singapore time), the NDTV and CNN-IBN networks said.

The local police chief confirmed to AFP that there had been fatalities and that rescue operations were under way but would not give a number of the dead.

Speaking to The Hindu newspaper from the scene of the fire, a local police inspector said that the driver had stopped the train when he saw flames around an hour from its destination.

"The fire is being doused. The bodies will be brought out once the smoke subsides a little," Railway Police Inspector Sai Prassad, who was overseeing the rescue effort, told the newspaper's website.

"We are expecting at least 23 casualties although the exact figure can be given only after the rescue operation is over," he added.

Fifty-four people would have been travelling in the carriage which had been completely gutted, the reports said. Around a dozen other passengers had been injured while some jumped off the train to escape the blaze.

In a statement on his official Twitter account, Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh expressed his "shock and grief at the loss of life in the train accident in Andhra Pradesh".

"PM directs railway and state government authorities to extend all possible help to the victims in rescue and relief operations," the statement added.

The railways ministry has set up a special hotline for families to see if relatives have been caught up in the tragedy and an initial compensation package has been unveiled.

India's accident-prone rail network is still the main form of long-distance travel in the huge country despite fierce competition from private airlines.

Thirty-two people were also killed in Andhra Pradesh in July last year on an express train carrying sleeping passengers to the southern city of Chennai.

India's worst rail accident was in 1981 when a train plunged into a river in the eastern state of Bihar, killing an estimated 800 people.

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