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Ivory Coast Sets Up Toxic Waste Investigating Commission

The government of Ivory Coast has launched a special commission to investigate the dumping of toxic waste in the country's main city last month. Ten people have so far been arrested in connection with the affair.

The 15-member panel, unveiled in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, Thursday, is made up of lawyers, police officials, health and environmental experts, and victims representatives.

The panel will probe the dumping last month of around 528,000 liters of dangerous chemicals at 15 sites across the city of around five million inhabitants.

So far, seven people have died from exposure to the mainly liquid waste. By the end of the day Tuesday, government officials said, doctors had seen 57,000 patients at 36 centers specially set up to deal with victims.

The scandal, which began with the offloading of the toxic waste from a ship chartered by the Dutch company Trafigura Beheer BV, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny's transitional government earlier this month.

The government commission will work simultaneously with a criminal investigation already under way. Aly Yeo is the spokesman for Ivory Coast's justice ministry. Yeo told VOA the judge has been given firm instructions to give this case special priority so it can be discovered who is responsible and to what extent.

Ten people have already been arrested in connection with the affair. Two Trafigura executives were charged Monday with breaking Ivorian environmental laws and poisoning. The charges carry 15- to 20-year prison sentences.

Yeo says Ivory Coast will also seek financial compensation for the costs of treating toxic waste victims, as well as for the cleanup. Once the current investigation reveals who is responsible, whether they are in Ivory Coast or elsewhere, he says, it is certain that they will be pursued and damages will be demanded.

It is not yet clear how much the toxic waste scandal will cost the Ivorian government. The price of medical treatment, offered free of charge, continues to grow. And it is too early to say how much the removal of the waste will cost says Henri Petitgand, a spokesman for the French-based Seche Group, the company in charge of the cleanup.

"We don't really know yet. It depends on the number of tons," he said. "We don't really know. The price of treatment in Europe, we don't know."

The cleanup crew is currently working on the first of 15 contaminated sites. The job, including the transporting of waste to disposal facilities in Europe, is expected to take several weeks.