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The BBC's James Coomarasamy in Paris
"A very chaotic situation"
 real 56k

Saturday, 14 April, 2001, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Villages cleared in WWI bomb alert
Residents are evacuated
The evacuation is expected to last about 10 days
More than 12,000 villagers have been evacuated in northern France ahead of a massive operation to move explosives and chemical weapons from a World War I ammunition dump.

Residents living within a 3km (two-mile) radius of the Vimy depot near Arras were given 24 hours to leave on Friday in an unprecedented evacuation when the munitions were found to be unsafe.

Security personnel said 12,500 people were evacuated without incident, but with the 10-day evacuation order coming on Easter weekend some people were refusing to budge despite the dangers.

"About three dozen people wanted to spend the night in their homes. We have sent in a team of psychologists, and I'll go and see them myself if I have to, to convince them," said the regional administrator, Jean Dussourd.

Mustard gas

The dump contains 160 tonnes of munitions, nearly all containing highly toxic mustard gas or phosgene, the two chemicals most widely used in the war, local officials said.

A 30-strong monitoring team sent to follow the transport operation have detected no traces of gas escaping from the 80-year-old shells.

But the danger was set to increase as about 50 bomb disposal specialists were brought in to handle the ammunition crates, some of which are reported to be cracked.

Among the 2,000 personnel mobilised for the operation are a number of fire-fighters who are on standby ready to hose down the convoy to prevent any gas escaping if a problem arises.

Hospitals on alert

BBC Paris correspondent James Coomarasamy says hospitals have been put on alert and schools and sports centres are being used by those who do not have friends to stay with.

barbed wire charge
200,000 troops died near Vimy

Vimy is the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war. More than a million shells were fired at German trenches before an assault by Canadian forces.

The interior ministry said a recent survey showed the munitions were in an alarming state of repair, and could explode.

"There are serious risks for the people living near the Vimy site, in particular from the escape of toxic products which are still active," said an interior ministry statement.

Special depot

Some of the munitions crates are cracked and will be transferred to a special depot next weekend, after they have been refrigerated and rendered inert.

Disposal experts disarm the Lorient bomb
Disposal experts disarm the Lorient bomb

Unexploded shells dating from World War I are still regularly dug up in the region.

On Thursday about 10,000 people were evacuated from the town of Lorient in Brittany, as experts defused a 250-kilo bomb dating from World War II.

One of the experts said that bomb contained 100 kilos of explosives, and would have killed anyone within 500m.

Lorient was the site of a Germany submarine base, and was heavily bombed by Allied forces in 1944.

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See also:

26 Oct 00 | Europe
World War I hospital unearthed
03 Nov 98 | World War I
Legacies of the Great War
10 Nov 98 | World War I
The war to end all wars
15 Jan 01 | Europe
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