France considers terrorist link to chemical plant blast

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The Independent Online

New information about a man found dead at the scene of a chemical plant blast last month has led authorities to take seriously the possibility that it was a terror attack, reports said on Friday.

Officials have remained silent following the environment minister's statement on Thursday that the blast in at a Toulouse fertilizer plant, which killed 29 people, might have been a terror attack.

Yves Cochet did elaborate on the reasons for his statement. But police said quietly that they were looking into a Frenchman of Tunisian origin, found dead at the scene, who was known to police for Islamic fundamentalist sympathies and was involved in altercations before the blast with workers displaying the American flag in sympathy with victims of the September 11 terror attacks.

On Friday, LCI television reported that intelligence services had sent a note to the Toulouse police, asking them to investigate information about the man, Hassan Jandoubi, 35. It said Jandoubi was connected to a group of four or five men in the area belonging to the Takfir movement, a Sunni sect of Egyptian origin that preaches a radical form of Islam.

Two of those men are believed to have spent time in Afghanistan, according to the LCI report.

The Toulouse prosecutor has said he is "99 percent" sure that the Sept. 21 explosion at the AZF chemical fertilizer plant was accidental. Judicial officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Thursday they still favored that theory.

And Toulouse's mayor has refused to comment on the terrorist theory.

"We will not enter into a cycle of irresponsibility," Mayor Philippe Douste­Blazy told The Associated Press Thursday. "I'd like the truth as soon as possible, but justice doesn't move at the same pace as politics, or news."

Authorities have said the blast was sparked in a silo containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical that can be used in fertilizer or explosives.

Le Figaro newspaper said Jandoubi was hired to work at the AZF plant by a subcontractor only five days before the accident. It said he was believed to have been involved in altercations on the eve and morning of the blast with workers displaying the U.S. flag.

Le Parisien newspaper quoted an investigator as saying it took five days to get permission to search Jandoubi's apartment, a delay that "spoiled" the investigation.

"The apartment had been completely cleaned out. No clothes, no photos, nothing," said the investigator, who was not identified. "If we had been allowed to do our jobs, perhaps there wouldn't be this uncertainty."

Police do quietly confirm that there are followers of several Islamic groups in the low­income Toulouse suburb known as Mirail. One police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the groups "have woven networks that have been around for a long time through the mosques they frequented."

The Toulouse blast killed 29 people, injured hundreds, and damaged scores of buildings – schools, hospitals, businesses and homes.

Investigating magistrates visited the explosion site on Tuesday, and police are still questioning plant employees.

AZF is the brand name under which Grande Paroisse, France's largest fertilizer manufacturer, sells its products. Grande Paroisse is owned by Atofina, the chemicals unit of TotalFinaElf ­ the world's fourth­biggest oil group.

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