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French blast death toll rises

Watching the wreckage
Smoke rises from the wrecked chemicals plant  

TOULOUSE, France -- The death toll in the French chemical plant blast has risen to at least 25 with more than 50 "very seriously injured."

Rescuers have been sifting through the destroyed AZF chemical plant, Toulouse, searching for survivors from Friday's explosion.

An investigation into the blast, which the Interior Ministry has said was an accident caused by an "incident in the handling of products," has been launched.

Christian Leveque, a health official in the Haute-Garonne region, said on France-3 Television: "More than 2,200 people passed through hospitals or clinics, and about 700 people are still hospitalised for treatment."

Hospital officials said more than 50 of those in hospital were in a "very serious condition" and Toulouse mayor Philippe Douste-Blazy warned the number of dead was likely to rise.

The force of the blast brought down walls and roofs on nearby homes and left a cloud of acrid smoke hanging over the city.

Explosion at chemicals plant  

The AZF plant was destroyed on Friday leaving a 50-meter-wide (50-yard) crater with debris scattered over a wide area.

Fire Chief Christian Pizzocaro, head of the rescue team, said: "It's as if there were several explosions and then a very big tornado. The site is extremely dangerous."

The company, which owned the plant, Grande Paroisse, said the explosion was accidental but an inquiry is being held.

And French President Jacques Chirac, who visited the site, also said it appeared the explosion was accidental.

"The current information leads us to think that it's an accident, although it's probably too early to say that with certitude. If it was an accident, authorities will have to learn lessons from the blast."

Grande Paroisse, France's largest fertiliser manufacturer, sells its products under the AZF brand name, and 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.

The AZF explosion was on par with an earthquake of magnitude 3.2, the National Earthquake Surveillance Centre reported.

And coming just 10 days after the hijack attacks in New York and Washington, many local residents thought they were under fire as the AZF chemicals exploded.

"We all thought it was a bomb," truck driver Guy Physsens told AP. "I dropped flat on my stomach, and when I got up, I saw people who were bleeding all over."

There were early reports that the explosion took place at a plant that manufactures rocket fuel for Arianespace, the European Space Agency's commercial arm.

However, officials later clarified that the explosion was at the nearby AZF factory. Toulouse is home to Airbus, the European aircraft-making consortium, as well as Arianespace.

• French Prime Minister's Office
• French President's Office

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