India gas cylinder blast death toll hits 49: Police

NEW DELHI - At least 49 people died when a gas cylinder exploded in a packed restaurant in India's central Madhya Pradesh state on Saturday morning, shattering surrounding buildings, police said.

The death toll rose after rescuers recovered dozens more bodies from the debris of the destroyed restaurant and neighbouring structures.

The blast occurred at around 8:30 am (0300 GMT) at the restaurant in the town of Petlawad in Jhabua district, as many office workers and schoolchildren were having breakfast, senior district police official Seema Alava said.

"We have recovered 49 bodies now. There are about 35 others injured who have been moved to (a nearby) hospital," Alava told AFP by phone from the site.

Authorities suspected the intensity of the explosion may have been compounded by the storage of dynamite sticks, used for mining, either in the building housing the restaurant or neighbouring building.

"It looks like someone had stored those explosives, the ones used in mining, in one of the buildings. But only further investigation will reveal the exact details," Alava said.

The restaurant was in a tightly packed area where many people were having breakfast, she said earlier, adding that the blast knocked down a neighbouring building and damaged several others.

Television footage showed scores of people and rescue workers using their bare hands to shift mangled heaps of steel and concrete of the ruined buildings while police cordoned off the area.

Bodies covered in dust and ash lay in the streets alongside the twisted wreckage of burned vehicles.

Another district police official, Anurag Mishra, cited the restaurant's proximity to a busy bus stand as a reason for the high number of casualties.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan took to Twitter to express his sadness at the loss of life.

"The Jhabua tragedy is heart wrenching. I offer my condolences to the families of the victims and pray for the speedy recovery of those injured," Chouhan said.

He offered compensation of 200,000 rupees ($3,020) to the families of the dead and 50,000 rupees ($755) to help the injured victims.

Chouhan has also ordered an inquiry into the matter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed suit and conveyed his condolences on the micro-blogging site.

"Extremely pained at the loss of lives due to the cylinder blast in Jhabua," Modi said.

Domestic gas cylinder explosions are common in India, where safety standards are relatively poor.

But although reports of fatal accidents from cylinder blasts are frequent, mass casualties are unusual.