Page last updated at 15:03 GMT, Monday, 23 February 2009

Fertiliser blast trial in France

Accident scene in Toulouse in 2001
The blast, equivalent to a 3.2 magnitude quake, levelled the plant

A subsidiary of the French energy giant Total has gone on trial over a 2001 explosion at a chemical plant which killed 30 people and injured thousands.

Total subsidiary Grande Paroisse and the head of its AZF plant in the southern city of Toulouse are charged with manslaughter.

The timing of the blast, just 10 days after 9/11 in the US, initialy led to theories that it too was an attack.

But an inquiry blamed it on negligence. The defendants reject wrongdoing.

Massive blast

Grande Paroisse and the AZF plant director, Serge Biechlin, are charged with manslaughter, involuntary injury and destruction of property.

But they argue that the plant met all safety standards in 2001.

"I am convinced that a chemical mix is the wrong explanation [for the accident]," Mr Biechlin told the media.

Prosecutors are hoping that the trial in Toulouse - involving dozens of experts and hundreds of witnesses - will shed light on the exact circumstances of the blast.

The massive explosion on 21 September 2001 occurred at a warehouse containing some 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

The blast left a big crater, killing 30 people. It also damaged surrounding houses, injuring more than 2,000 people.

The trial is expected to last several months.

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