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Japanese chemical plant explodes

An explosion at a large chemical plant in western Japan has killed one firefighter and left at least 17 others injured, local fire authorities said. Firefighters are still struggling to contain the blaze.

A police officer said a tank at Nippon Shokubai, a major chemical producing factory in the coastal industrial city of Himehi, in Hyogo prefecture exploded at 2.05 pm (5.05 am GMT) local time.

"We have one fatality. Five in serious conditions, and 16 with minor injuries," said one firefighter at the scene.

Factory workers reported hearing a loud blast and tremors after the first chemical tank exploded.

Exact details of the explosion which occurred about 600 kilometers (100 miles) west of Tokyo remain unknown.

Blaze visible

Local television footage shows firefighers continuing to battle the blaze which has taken hold of a large section of the chemical factory.

Residents close to the factory told local public television station NHK they initially heard two loud explosions, with the first shaking their homes and offices like an earthquake.

According to the company's website, the plant produces industrial chemicals, including acrylic acid and superabsorbent polymer.

Nippon Shokubai officials could not be reached for comment.

Himeji is known internationally for its remarkable 17th century castle which is on World Cultural Heritage list.

Last March, a fire at one of Germany's largest chemical complexes at Marl in the Ruhr District claimed two lives. That blaze at a plant run by the specialist concern Evonik left the auto industry facing shortages in synthetic components.

jlw/ipj (AP, AFP, Reuters)