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Friday, March 26, 1999 Published at 16:28 GMT

World: Europe

Tunnel fire kills 30

Charred wreckage: All that remains of vehicles caught in the blaze

At least 30 people are reported to have died in a fire which has been burning for the past two days in the tunnel underneath Mont Blanc linking France and Italy.

Eleven bodies have been recovered, but rescue services have seen others in the wreckage of at least 20 other vehicles.

French volunteer fireman Paul Colombo explains the difficulties faced by the rescuers
Distraught relatives have reported more than a dozen people missing.

The head of the company which operates the tunnel, Remi Chardon said: "What we fear is that some of the private vehicles were carrying several passengers.

"In all, we may attain a bracket of about 30 victims," he added.

Geeta Guru-Murthy reports: "Thick smoke has made progress difficult"
The fire broke out two days ago on board a a Belgian-registered food truck carrying flour and margarine through the tunnel, which cuts beneath western Europe's highest mountain.

Emergency teams from Italy, France and Switzerland are bringing the flames under control after struggling for more than 30 hours.

Attempts to reach the scene were hampered by intense heat and clouds of toxic fumes.

The tunnel will remain closed for several weeks.

[ image: Exhausted firefighters battled for 30 hours]
Exhausted firefighters battled for 30 hours
One firefighter is among the dead after suffering a heart attack due to smoke inhalation.

An employee of the Italian company managing the Italian side of the tunnel was also reported missing.

Some 24 people were injured on the French side of the tunnel, including firefighters and tunnel company employees, There are 10 further casualties on the Italian side.

Safety questions

Meanwhile questions were being asked about safety conditions in the seven-mile (11.5km) tunnel.

[ image: The tunnel will be closed for weeks]
The tunnel will be closed for weeks
The route was used by some 766,000 heavy goods vehicles in 1998.

On trade union official claimed that equipment and safety procedures did not function or were inadequate.

But the road tunnel operators have rejected the criticism, saying that surveillance cameras, pressurised emergency shelters and ventilation systems were working efficiently.

Stephen Jessell reports: "Their difficulties are made worse by the intense heat"
The French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said he had asked the Italian government for a special meeting next week on safety in the tunnel.

He said the route would be closed for several weeks.

The state attorney at Bonneville in the Haute-Savoie district of the French Alps announced the opening of a manslaughter inquiry in order to establish the causes and responsibility for the blaze.

The tunnel fire is the second disaster to hit the French Chamonix region in recent weeks, after avalanches swept through the Alps.

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