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Mont Blanc reopens despite blast

Mont Blanc tunnel
Mont Blanc tunnel: $265 million has been spent repairing the Alpine route  

CHAMONIX, France -- Mont Blanc tunnel reopened to cars on Saturday despite an explosion at its mouth hours earlier.

The tunnel, which links France and Italy under the Alps, has been closed for three years since a fatal lorry fire caused more than $250 million worth of damage.

No one has claimed responsibility for the explosion which caused no damage to the tunnel, The Associated Press reported, but protesters have called for the tunnel to be closed to lorries.

The first car went through at midday following a wreath laying ceremony for the 39 people who died in the 1999 fire, and cars queued up on the French side to go through.

About 1,000 demonstrators, members of resident and ecology groups, gathered outside each end of the tunnel.

TIMELINE: Tunnel disasters 

Police told Reuters the device went off around 3.30 a.m. (0230 GMT) on Saturday on the bonnet of a car parked on a French access route to the tunnel, badly damaging the vehicle.

Two other attacks against the tunnel last year, while it was still closed to traffic, were claimed by activist groups that opposed truck traffic in the Alpine passage.

The tunnel is expected to reopen to trucks next week, government officials said.

Environmentalists and other critics including some locals say that trucks inside the 12-kilometre (7.4-mile) tunnel are too dangerous and cause excessive pollution.

Jean-Paul Trichet, of the Association for the Respect of the Mont Blanc pressure group, said he hoped the protests would remain peaceful on Saturday but warned that residents would try to blockade any future access to trucks.

"When they start to come back, we won't be on the side of the road any more -- we'll be in it," he told Reuters.

In March 1999, 39 people were killed when a truck carrying flour and margarine caught fire and turned the passage into a deathtrap. The blaze burned for two days while firefighters tried to reach cars and people trapped inside.

French Transportation Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said $265 million has been spent rebuilding the tunnel and incorporating new safety features.

Officials originally hoped to reopen the Mont Blanc tunnel by last summer, but the date was repeatedly pushed back because of safety concerns.


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