Three people were killed and nine others injured, some of them critically, when a late-night train crashed into the rear of a stationary freight train in eastern Belgium, authorities said.

"The passenger train is really in a lamentable state," Francis Dejon, mayor of the commune of Saint-Georges-sur-Meuse, told a news conference. "We've very lucky there weren't more victims."

Twenty-seven other passengers were treated as a result of the accident, which authorities said happened at around 11pm on Sunday.

RTL broadcasting said the passenger train was carrying about 40 people when it slammed into the freight train at a speed of 55mph (90kph) in Hermalle-sous-Huy on the banks of the River Meuse near Liege.

Two cars from the passenger train derailed and overturned.

Mr Dejon said the first car was so badly damaged "it was curled back on itself".

 

It took rescuers up to three hours to free people from the wreckage.

Some of the nine injured people taken to hospital were in a critical condition and the death toll could rise, the mayor said.

He added that prosecutors were at the scene and were investigating the cause of the accident.

"The SNCB will participate closely in the investigation," Belgium's national railway operator said in a statement.

Its services have been seriously affected by a recent wave of strikes, especially in French-speaking parts of the country.

The train crash halted rail services between Namur and Liege, two of Belgium's largest cities. Nathalie Pierard, an SNCB spokeswoman, said it could take several days to clear the tracks.

The passenger train was travelling between Mouscron and Liers. Those injured were taken for treatment to Huy and Liege, and psychological counselling was arranged for those who wanted it.

Family members arriving at the accident scene to search for loved ones were being offered accommodation in a nearby abbey.