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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 15:56 GMT
Oil spill trial opens in France
Workers clean beach in Brittany in 2000 after Erika oil spill
The oil from Erika polluted a long stretch of the French coast
The trial over one of France's worst environmental disasters - the 1999 Erika oil spill - has opened.

The oil tanker Erika sank off the coast of Brittany, spilling 20,000 tons of oil into the sea and polluting 400km (250 miles) of coastline.

Oil giant Total is one of 15 parties charged with endangering lives or failing to prevent pollution.

If convicted, Total could face damages amounting to millions of dollars. The company rejects the charges.

There are 74 plaintiffs in the trial, including the French government, local councils and environmental groups.

'Dubious seaworthiness'

The Erika was a 25-year-old rusting, Maltese-registered tanker that broke in two in heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay on 12 December 1999.

Its 26 crew members were winched to safety by helicopter, but two weeks later its cargo of heavy fuel oil began to wash ashore.

A long stretch of France's coastline was covered in oil and tens of thousands of seabirds were killed.

Total executive Bernard Thouillin and two of the company's affiliates are charged with chartering a tanker of dubious seaworthiness in order to deliver the tanker of fuel to Italy on time.

The company faces penalties ranging from tens of thousands of dollars for endangering lives to millions of dollars in damages and compensation for causing pollution.

Several French maritime officials, the ship's Indian captain and the Italian maritime certification company which said the ship was safe are also on trial.

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