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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 16:45 GMT
Mont Blanc tunnel reopens
A car and security guard in the Mont Blanc tunnel
It is not clear when lorries will be allowed through again
The Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy has reopened to cars, nearly three years after a lorry fire killed 39 people and severed the road link.

A white convertible car with British licence plates was at the head of about 50 vehicles waiting for the green light to show after a religious benediction for the fully rebuilt tunnel under the Alps.

Just hours earlier, a device - believed to be a grenade used to start avalanches - exploded on an approach road on the French side of the tunnel, which goes to Italy under western Europe's highest mountain.

Journalists swarm around the first car to drive through the tunnel
Extra escape routes have been added
A maintenance truck was damaged but no one was hurt and the tunnel was reopened at around 1150 GMT, nearly an hour behind schedule.

The opening ceremony was sombre and dedicated to the victims of the March 24, 1999 fire.

After the blessing, Gilbert Santel, president of Mont Blanc Highway and Tunnel which runs the French side, hailed the reopening as a "symbol of free circulation in Europe."

Nearly 200 police reinforcements were brought in as 1,500 activists opposed to goods traffic gathered for a protest.

Pollution

The demonstrators - ringing cow bells and carrying posters - marched from the nearby town of Chamonix to the tunnel's French entrance.

Click here to see a map of trans-Alpine tunnels

Environmentalists are concerned about the return of heavy goods traffic and the consequent pollution.

Initially only cars will be allowed through the tunnel, according to a French-Italian government committee which announced the reopening following final security checks this week.

Burnt lorry in Mont Blanc tunnel
The 1999 fire spread from a lorry to other vehicles
Lorries are expected to be allowed through the tunnel after mid-March.

Heavy goods traffic will be staggered - with vehicles only allowed through the tunnel in one direction at a time - and lorries carrying dangerous substances will not be allowed into the tunnel.

Hauliers say the plans will lead to congestion either side of the tunnel, and accuse the French Government of pandering to public fears resulting from the fire.

The 1999 fire burned for two days and devastated the 12-kilometre tunnel.

It started in a lorry then spread to nearby cars, producing choking smoke and extremely high temperatures.

The inquiry into the fire is continuing.

Alpine disruption

The tunnel is one of the major trans-Alpine routes and its closure has caused congestion on other tunnels and mountain passes.

It has particularly affected the Italians, who rely on the tunnel for transporting goods to northern Europe.

An estimated one-third of Italy's freight used to pass through the tunnel.

The closure of the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland after a fire there last autumn exacerbated the problems.



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The BBC's Richard Forrest
"French demonstrators are planning a protest"
See also:

06 Mar 02 | Europe
Inside the Mont Blanc tunnel
23 Jan 02 | Europe
Tunnel protest as delays drag on
21 Dec 01 | Europe
Swiss tunnel re-opens after fire
21 Dec 01 | Europe
Jury out on Gotthard tunnel
26 Oct 01 | Europe
France proposes one-way tunnels
25 Oct 01 | Europe
Analysis: Alpine road v rail
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