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French factory blast kills 17

TOULOUSE, France -- A massive explosion at a petrochemical plant near the southern French city of Toulouse has claimed the lives of 17 people.

At least 240 people were injured, 30 of them seriously, in the blast at the AZF plant, the biggest producer of agricultural chemical products in France and Europe's third-largest.

The explosion in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Toulouse took place at around 10.20 a.m. local time (0820 GMT) on Friday. French TV pictures showed damage in parts of the city several kilometres from the site of the blast.

A 10-kilometre (6.25 miles) area around the plant was sealed off as emergency workers in gas masks rushed to the scene.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin travelled Toulouse shortly after hearing of the incident, while President Jacques Chirac's office said he was on his way too.

"We know unfortunately that there was a large number of victims," Jospin told reporters. "This accident is dramatic."

Officials told residents to stay inside their homes amid fears that smoke drifting over the city could be toxic, though the regional prefect, Hubert Fournier, said it appeared this was not the case.

He added: "There are numerous victims surely, but it's impossible to say how many." Speaking on French radio, he wouldn't comment on the cause of the explosion, which occurred at about 10:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) at the AZF chemical plant,

The explosion caused two chimneys at the plant to topple over. A school was evacuated after a nearby electrical goods store collapsed shortly after the explosion, said Reuters.

Injured workers at the scene of the explosion
Injured workers at the scene of the explosion  

Police said preliminary indications suggested the blast was accidental. The same plant was the site of an ammonia explosion in 1998.

The AZF plant produces ammonium nitrate and other agricultural chemicals.

A spokesman for Arianespace, which uses rocket fuel manufactured at the Groupe SNPE plant, which is next door to the AZF plant, said that facility was evacuated and some its employees were injured, but there was no explosion inside the SNPE facility as had been reported by some agencies.

The Toulouse subway was evacuated and the city's airport closed while telephone communications were disrupted.

The force of the explosion shattered windows in the nearby regional police headquarters, opposite the law courts in the centre of Toulouse, Reuters said.

Witnesses reported hearing two loud explosions and seeing a cloud of smoke.

"I heard two booms," one woman told the television station M6. "There was panic in the street, it was terrible. There is some sort of dust in the air. It's scary."

"The whole town heard it (the explosion). Everybody left the building. Phone lines are no longer working," a receptionist at Airbus facilities on the outskirts of Toulouse, which was not affected by the explosions, told Reuters.

"We thought it was a plane exploding," said Sandra Muller, a mother of three reached by The Associated Press. "All the houses trembled."

Muller, who lives about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the site, said a neighbour had returned from the direction of the blast with the windows of his car blown out.

Grande Paroisse, France's largest fertilizer manufacturer, sells its products under the AZF brandname. Grande Paroisse is owned by Atofina, the chemicals unit of TotalFinaElf -- the world's fourth-biggest oil group.

The AZF plant, where 460 people work, is among 372 sites in France classified under a European Union directive as high-risk, meaning that extra security precautions must be taken.

The high-risk designation, officially named "Seveso," was put in place after a 1976 chemical disaster in the Italian village of Seveso, where a pharmaceutical factory malfunctioned, producing a toxic cloud containing dioxin.






RELATED SITES:
• French Prime Minister's Office
• French President's Office

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