Protesters block tunnel reopening

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The Independent Online

Up to 600 people protesting against the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel to heavy goods vehicles after a fire that killed 39 people succeeded in stopping trucks entering the Alpine passage yesterday.

Up to 600 people protesting against the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel to heavy goods vehicles after a fire that killed 39 people succeeded in stopping trucks entering the Alpine passage yesterday.

About 300 police and a helicopter were sent to guard against violence during the latest stage of the staggered reopening of the 12km (7.4-mile) tunnel, which links France and Italy. But the protesters, mostly from the Chamonix valley, set up blockades and lorry traffic had to be rerouted south towards the Fréjus tunnel.

On the Italian side, some 300 people gathered in a peaceful demonstration against the reopening of the tunnel to truck traffic. Like their counterparts on the French side, many wore white overalls bearing the highway sign "no entry."

Trucks weighing up to 26 tonnes had been given permission to use the tunnel, a vital economic link, from yesterday. But tractor-trailers and vehicles with more than four axles were still excluded. Car traffic through the tunnel resumed on 9 March, with trucks weighing less than 19 tonnes and tourist buses cleared to return on 8 April. The largest category of trucks, with the exception of those carrying dangerous cargo, is scheduled to start using the tunnel from 25 June. Police stepped up security around the tunnel after a small truck belonging to the French tunnel operator was destroyed in a blast on the night before the tunnel reopened to cars.

One of the protesters, Georges Unia, president of the Association for the Respect of the Mont Blanc Site, said: "Our goal is to bar the route to trucks. We're going to resist, actively but non-violently."

Gilles de Robien, France's Transport Minister, refused to back down. The calendar for the staggered reopening will be respected, a ministry statement said. It noted that an administrative court in Grenoble had rejected a request by the town of Chamonix not to apply a French-Italian agreement on reopening the tunnel.

On 24 March 1999, 39 people were killed after a truck carrying flour and margarine caught fire and transformed the tunnel into an inferno. The blaze burnt for two days while firefighters tried to reach cars and people trapped inside.

The tunnel was entirely rebuilt with many new safety features, including firefighters stationed permanently at each end and in the middle of the passage. (AP)

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