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Sunday, March 28, 1999 Published at 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK

World: Europe

Mont Blanc tunnel systems 'inefficient'

Jean-Pierre Chevenement (centre) questioned safety measures

Warning systems in the Mont Blanc tunnel where at least 40 people lost their lives in a fire have been criticised by the French Interior Minister.

Jean-Pierre Chevenement said the systems seemed inadequate.

The BBC's Rachel Ellison: "Parts of the tunnel are still alight"
Motorists in 23 trucks, nine cars and a van were incinerated in the blaze which took French, Italian and Swiss firefighters more than 50 hours to bring under control.

Police have arrived at the tunnel to begin the process of identifying the bodies of the victims.

[ image: The firefighters buried their colleague]
The firefighters buried their colleague
Mr Chevenement, in Chamonix for the funeral on Saturday of a firefighter who died battling the blaze, said the tunnel's security cameras were apparently not up to the challenge of such a fire.

"It seems that the cameras indicated a fire, but with all that smoke, they quickly had nothing of interest to show," he said.

The minister said an official inquiry into the blaze would report its findings on 31 May.

Molten asphalt

Flames engulfed a Belgian-registered truck carrying flour and margarine deep in the tunnel on Wednesday, and the fire quickly spread through the tunnel, which links France and Italy.

[ image: Many have been too shocked to speak]
Many have been too shocked to speak
The temperature inside the tunnel raged over 1,000 degrees Celsius, melting asphalt, causing tyres to explode and bringing down part of the ceiling and walls.

But the full extent of the disaster did not emerge until Friday when the fire was finally put out.

The commander of the French rescue operations, Philippe Pathoux, said his firefighters had been horrified by the tragedy.

Hugh Schofield reports: "A simple fuel leak"
"The firefighters are in shock, especially those who went in first," he said, adding that the rescue operation would take several more days.

Officials expect the tunnel, underneath the 4,807-metre (15,863 ft) Mont Blanc will be closed for at least two months.

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