Mt. Blanc Tunnel Reopens

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Chamonix, France (AP by Thierry Boinet)--Rebuilt and blessed, the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy reopened for the first time since a fire three years ago transformed the Alpine passage into an inferno that killed 39 people.

After a formal religious blessing of the fully rebuilt 7.4-mile tunnel, the first car rolled through, 50 minutes after the scheduled noon opening. The Italian entrance opened at the same time, officials said.

However, signs that not all was well preceded the opening--a pre-dawn blast at the French entrance that destroyed a maintenance truck. The explosion was thought to be the work of protesters opposed to truck traffic in the tunnel.

The tunnel was not to open to trucks, heavy users of the Alpine pass--a vital economic link between France and Italy--until after March 15, the French Transport Ministry has said. Currently, only vehicles of less than 3.5 tons were given access.

Nearly 200 police reinforcements were brought in as some 1,500 activists opposed to truck traffic gathered for a protest. Some ringing cow bells, some carrying posters, they marched from the nearby town of Chamonix to the tunnel entrance.

``We're beside the road today. The next time, for the trucks, we'll be in the middle of the road,'' said demonstrator Jean-Paul Trichet.

A small ceremony to bless the tunnel was held at its center before opening. Speaking before French and Italian officials, the Rev. Dominique Breche of Chamonix expressed hope that ``this work no longer be regulated only by profit and money.''

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the 3 a.m. blast at the French entrance to the tunnel, which had been closed since a fire in a truck on March 24, 1999, spread to other vehicles and throughout the tunnel.

Groups opposed to the reopening of the tunnel to truck traffic set off two blasts last year while the tunnel was still closed.

The activists contend that trucks are both a safety hazard and a major polluter in the pristine region where the famous Chamonix ski resort is located.

European Union Commission President Romano Prodi hailed the reopening, calling the tunnel a ``vital component'' for Europe's single market in goods. The closing caused a bottleneck that ``was seriously hampering intra-European trade,'' he said in a statement.

However, Prodi added that other modes of transport, like road-rail and all-rail links, must be devised and ``environmental protection issues be given full consideration.''

The thousands of trucks that have used the tunnel daily make it a major economic link in Europe. Italian Transport Minister Pietro Lunardi said in an interview published Friday in the French business daily La Tribune that Italy has lost $2.27 billion as a result of the tunnel's closing.

The tunnel reopened after a final round of safety tests on Monday. Authorities now say it is ``the safest in the world.''

Builders added an escape passage under the roadway, 37 shelters for travelers to take refuge, some 120 cameras, 10 speed radars and barriers to stop traffic in the event of an incident.

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press