At least 22 dead and 87 injured after passenger train derails in eastern Iran

This photo provided by the Iranian Red Crescent Society shows the scene where a passenger train was partially derailed near the desert town of Tabas in eastern Iran on June 8.The Associated Press

A passenger train crossing eastern Iran hit an excavator and nearly half of its carriages derailed before dawn on Wednesday, killing at least 22 people and injuring 87, officials said.

The derailment near the desert town of Tabas was the latest disaster to hit the Islamic Republic in recent weeks as Tehran struggles under US sanctions and any return to its nuclear deal with world powers remains uncertain.

The train, operated by the Islamic Republic Railway, carried some 350 people as it traveled from the city of Tabas, about 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Tehran, to the city of Yazd . The route had started as an overnight train from the Iranian holy city of Mashhad.

Based on footage after the accident, it appeared that the train’s locomotive had passed the excavator and the last cars had hit the excavator and caused the derailment, although authorities did not immediately explain how the disaster had occurred in rural scrubland near a railway bridge.

“Passengers were bouncing around the car like bullets in the air,” an unnamed injured passenger told Iranian state television.

State news agency IRNA gave casualty figures, citing emergency officials.

Rescue teams with ambulances and helicopters have arrived in the remote area where communications are poor. More than a dozen people suffered serious injuries, some of whom were transferred to local hospitals, officials said.

Aerial footage of the desert site of the disaster showed train carriages sideways, with rescuers running to the scene as they tried to treat the injured.

State television later broadcast footage from a hospital where the injured were being treated. One of the injured told the broadcaster he felt the train suddenly brake and then slow down before the derailment.

The incident happened about 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside Tabas.

The report says the crash is under investigation. Initial reports suggested the train had collided with an excavator near the track, although it was not immediately clear why an excavator would have been close to the tracks in the dark. A manager suggested it might have been part of a repair project.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi offered his condolences over the accident and announced that an investigation would be undertaken into its causes. On Wednesday evening, authorities ordered the arrest of six people believed to have been involved in the accident, although they did not release any further information on why they were suspected.

Iran’s worst train disaster occurred in 2004, when a runaway train loaded with gasoline, fertilizer, sulfur and cotton crashed near the historic town of Neyshabur, killing some 320 people, wounding 460 others and damaging five villages. In 2016, a train collision in northern Iran killed at least 43 people and injured around 100.

Iran has some 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) of railway lines across the country, about two and a half times the size of Texas. Its rail system transports both people and goods across the country, especially in rural areas.

Iran also has some 17,000 annual fatalities on its highways, one of the worst road safety records in the world. The high toll is blamed on disregard for traffic laws, unsafe vehicles and inadequate emergency services.

Iran, already under pressure under US sanctions over its collapsed nuclear deal, is mourning the death of at least 41 people killed in a building collapse in May in the southeastern city of Abadan. west of the country.

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Jose P. Rogers