Death toll up to 24 in Taiwan gas blasts

Kaohsiung - At least 24 people were killed and 271 injured when several underground gas explosions ripped through Taiwan's second-largest city, hurling concrete and cars through the air and blasting trenches in the streets, authorities said on Friday, as a search for the cause began.

The series of blasts occurred at around midnight on Thursday in a densely populated district where several petrochemical companies operate pipelines alongside the sewer system in Kaohsiung, a southwestern port with 2.8 million people.

Fire-fighters called to the neighbourhood to investigate a gas leak were among the victims when the blasts went off several hours later, upending at least five red fire trucks amid the rubble of pavement and dirt.

Four fire-fighters were among the 24 dead, and 271 people were injured, the National Fire Agency said. The death toll could rise, because many of the seriously injured were still being treated, officials said.

"Last night around midnight, the house started shaking and I thought it was a huge earthquake, but when I opened the door, I saw white smoke all over and smelled gas", said Chen Qing-tao, aged 38, who lives 10 buildings away from the main explosion site.

The fires were believed to be caused by a leak of propene, a petrochemical material not intended for public use, but the cause and source of the leak were not immediately clear, officials said.

The exploded gas line belongs to government-owned CPC, which told The Associated Press it showed no signs of problems before the explosions. CPC officials at the scene on Friday declined to offer information about reasons for the blasts.

Video from the TVBS broadcaster showed residents searching for victims in shattered storefronts and rescuers pulling injured people from the rubble, placing them on stretchers.

At least five blasts shook the city, Taiwan's Premier Jiang Yi-huah said.