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Belgian trains crash head-on, 18 confirmed dead

HALLE, Belgium (Reuters) - Two commuter trains crashed head-on near Brussels during the morning rush hour on Monday, killing at least 18 people.

The trains collided in snowy conditions at the village of Buizingen, near Halle, 15 km (9 miles) southwest of the Belgian capital, causing the cancellation of services to France and Britain.

Some passengers were still trapped inside one wrecked carriage in freezing temperatures several hours after the disaster, which occurred at about 8:30 a.m. (0730 GMT).

The province of Flemish Brabant, which includes the town of Halle, said the death toll officially stood at 18 -- 15 men and three women. Some of them had not yet been identified, and this could take another 24 hours.

It was already Belgium’s most serious rail accident since a derailment in 1974 that cost 18 lives.

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A further 162 people were injured, Provincial Governor Lodewijk De Witte told a news conference.

De Witte said one of the trains, a local service from Leuven, had gone past a red light and plowed into an express train bound for Liege running about 10 minutes late.

Train operator SNCB said it was too early to speculate about the cause of the accident. It said between 250 and 300 people were traveling in the two trains at the time.

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The two trains were crushed against each other, their ends suspended in the air. Overhead power lines were badly damaged. The injured were taken to 14 separate hospitals in and around Brussels.

“The first two carriages were completely squashed,” said 37-year-old Hambaoui Mounir. “I was in the carriage right behind. The train fell to one side, people fell over each other, there was no air and women and children were screaming.”

Prime Minister Yves Leterme, breaking short a visit to the Balkans, said he was stunned by the accident, which occurred less than three weeks after a gas explosion at a residential block in Liege in which 14 people were killed.

A wide range of train services, including high-speed trains from Brussels to Paris and the Eurostar from Brussels to London via the Channel Tunnel, were suspended for the day.

Eurostar said its services between Brussels and Britain would remain suspended all day on Tuesday. It would operate a reduced service between Britain and Lille in France.

The French railway company SNCF said in a statement no trains would run between France and Belgium on Tuesday.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Bate Felix, and Marine Hass, and Sophie Taylor in Paris; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Andrew Dobbie