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Children killed after French school bus collides with train near Perpignan

Raymond Roig, AFP | Firefighters and police work at the site of an accident in Millas, near Perpignan in southern France, on December 14.

At least five children were killed after a train crashed into a school bus at a train crossing near Perpignan in southern France on Thursday.


The bus, which was carrying around 20 students from a local secondary school, was struck by a train in Millas about 18 kilometres (11 miles) west of the city of Perpignan, close to the Spanish border, in mid-afternoon.

"The bus was very badly hit," said Perpignan's public prosecutor, Jean-Jacques Fagny.

France Bleu regional radio reported that the train ploughed into the rear of the bus. Pictures posted on French media showed the vehicle had been severed in two.

Around 95 emergency workers, backed by four helicopters, were deployed as part of the rescue effort. Investigators only finished identifying the dead overnight due to the severity of the injuries involved.

Four teenagers died in the collision on Thursday evening. Local authorities said a fifth child died of injuries on Friday.

Fifteen other children, all aged between 11 and 17, were injured when the bus was torn in two and the train pulled off its rails in France's worst accident involving a school bus in France for three decades.

The security department for the Pyrenees area, where the collision took place, said the accident involved a train travelling west from Perpignan to the town of Villefranche de Conflent.

'Involuntary homicide' enquiry

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who flew to Millas by helicopter, said the process of identifying the victims was "extremely difficult".

At least 24 people were involved in the accident, including 20 youths between 13 and 17 years of age, said Philippe.

"The priority at this stage is to be able to give precise information to the families," Philippe said.

The local L'Independant paper cited one of the rail passengers, named only as Barbara, as saying the impact "was very powerful and we thought the train was going to derail".

The reason for the collision was unclear but an enquiry into "involuntary homicide" has been opened.

A source close to the enquiry said witness questioning was under way and that the drivers of the bus and train would be tested for alcohol and drugs.

'Vision of horror'

Robert Olive, mayor of neighbouring Saint-Feliu-d'Amont, described the scene as a "vision of horror".

"The coach was really cut in two by the train as it passed," he added.

The national railway operator SNCF told AFP that "the level crossing was working as normal", according to witnesses, but that an investigation would be carried out to confirm the cause.

The families of the children rushed to the scene to try to get news of their loves ones, an AFP reporter at the scene reported.

President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: "All my thoughts for the victims of this terrible accident involving a school bus, as well as their families. The state is fully mobilised to help them."

Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne and SNCF head Guillaume Pepy also made their way to the accident site.

"It's a terrible event," Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said, adding that he felt "profound sadness". 

A medical-psychological aid centre was set up in Millas.

The accident is the third involving multiple fatalities on French railways in the past four years.

In 2015, a high-speed TGV train being tested on a stretch of the line between Paris and the eastern city of Strasbourg derailed after hitting a bridge at 243 kilometres per hour, killing 11 people onboard.

In 2013, seven people were killed when a commuter train slammed into a station south of Paris. A signalling defect was blamed for that crash.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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