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Cause of Blast Fatal to 29 Still Eludes France

The New York Times
Paris, Oct. 6

More than 100 investigators are working to figure out what caused the devastating explosion at a petrochemical plant in Toulouse last month, but have not yet answered the basic question, whether it was an industrial accident or a deliberate act.

Government ministers say that so far they lack the evidence to explain the explosion, France's most serious industrial catastrophe, which killed 29 people, injured several thousand and destroyed numerous buildings on Sept. 21. The official working thesis remains that it was an accident. But the minister of the environment, Yves Cochet, caused a stir this week when he said on television that "a new piece of information reached us which shows that there might have been a terrorist origin; we are not ruling out any hypothesis, including that of an accident."

His remarks coincided with prominent reports in the French press that the police were examining the life of a man who joined the AZF plant just five days before the explosion and who they said they believed had links with local Islamic fundamentalists.

The worker, Hassan Jandoubi, 35, a Frenchman of Tunisian descent, was killed in the explosion. The police became interested in him, the newspapers said, because truck drivers at the plant testified that the night before the blast Mr. Jandoubi had shouted abuse at them for the small American flag they displayed in their truck cabin to show sympathy with the United States victims of terrorist attacks.

The autopsy report on Mr. Jandoubi, leaked to the local press, said he was wearing extra layers of clothing, as suicide bombers sometimes do.

Family members insisted that Mr. Jandoubi was not a practicing Muslim, but the police in Toulouse said he regularly met a with a small group of men at a local mosque. When the police searched Mr. Jandoubi's apartment for clues, they found that his girlfriend had removed his clothes, papers and photographs. But investigators have not focused exclusively on him.

French officials, from President Jacques Chirac on down, have tried to stave off panic from the beginning, insisting that the explosion was an accident. But they have had trouble convincing people because investigators have conceded that they lack definitive evidence either way.

In Toulouse, as in the rest of France, many people feared there was a link to the terror attacks on the United States only 10 days earlier.

Three separate investigations are now under way at the 40-acre site in Toulouse where the chemical works lie in ruin. One is led by the judicial police, France's equivalent of the F.B.I.; another has been ordered by the Ministry of Environment, which is in part responsible for industrial safety. The owner of the plant, the TotalFinaElf oil and chemical group, is conducting its own inquiry and has brought in experts from other European countries.

Attention is focused on a warehouse that held 300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, now a 150-foot-wide crater surrounded by debris.

Investigators agree that it was in the piles of fertilizer that the explosion most likely occurred. But they have not been able to answer what set the explosion off.

The Ministry of Interior today published a provisional report of the damage caused by the explosion and the enormous shock waves that were felt for several miles around.

The ministry said that 72 people remain in the hospital, while more than 3,000 people have been treated for mostly superficial wounds. Several dozen schools, a university and a hospital near the plant remain unusable. Some 300 businesses, large and small, employing 4,600 people are still unable to function.

last updated: october.15.2001

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