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Last Updated: Friday, 29 August, 2003, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
'Over 11,000' dead in French heat
Refrigerated mortuary lorries in Paris
The heavy strain on mortuaries led to bodies being stored in lorries
An estimated 11,435 people died in France's heatwave in the first half of August, according to the country's Health Ministry.

Temperatures rose to over 40C in the first two weeks of the month, leading to an unusually high number of deaths of mainly elderly people and putting a heavy strain on mortuaries and funeral services.

The figures are the first official government tally.

"These are provisional figures, but duty to the truth obliges me to make them public right now," said Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei in a statement.

Estimates by the country's leading undertakers' group have been consistently higher than the government's.

Pompes Funebres Generales, which represents 25% of the French funerals market, said on Thursday it was standing by its latest estimate of 13,000 dead.

The government has come under heavy criticism from doctors and the left-wing opposition for its handling of the crisis.

'Still dying'

Mr Mattei has resisted calls to step down, but Surgeon-General Lucien Abenheim resigned on 18 August over the crisis.

Unmarked heatwave victims' graves at Thiais cemetery, south of Paris
Some victims are being buried in unmarked graves
Ministers have responded by promising a long-term action plan to protect the elderly, though they have said the price tag could be high.

France is requesting aid from the European Union to deal with the effects of the heatwave, and the government is considering scrapping a public holiday to finance extra health care.

The head of a union of hospital emergency doctors, Patrick Pelloux, told AFP news agency on Thursday that people were still dying from the effects of the heatwave in some regions.

But he said that France should learn lessons from the crisis.

"We don't want the consequences of this heatwave to be a macabre number, but rather an opportunity to truly understand the difficulties in the health and social networks, and to ensure that resources aren't forgotten," he said.

The BBC's Louise Bevan
"The French health service simply couldn't cope"

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