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Mont Blanc Tunnel Re-Opens - 2002-03-09

The Mont Blanc tunnel connecting France and Italy finally reopened to light vehicles Saturday, three years after a fiery crash shut the vital Alpine link. The re-opening of the tunnel continues to stir controversy.

The first car, a white convertible carrying a vacationing British couple, drove into the French entrance of the Mont Blanc tunnel shortly before 1 pm local time (1200 UTC), to the cheers of onlookers.

For the moment, the tunnel is open to car and light vehicle traffic only, and drivers this Saturday and Sunday will get to pass through for free.

At the Italian side of the tunnel, Dino Vierin, president of the Aosta Valley region, hailed the re-opening. Mr. Vierin told French radio he hoped the re-opening would revive the region's economy, which was severely affected when the 11.6 kilometer tunnel was closed in March 1999. A truck, which caught fire inside, trapped numerous vehicles and their occupants. In the ensuing blaze, 39 people died.

The accident caused outrage among local residents about the weight and pollution of an estimated 2,500 commercial trucks that used the tunnel each day. Critics also blamed lax security inside the tunnel for the crash.

Since then, the tunnel has been strengthened, escape chambers have been added, and strict security procedures are in place, with cameras to monitor traffic from one end to the other. The number of trucks allowed to use the tunnel will be sharply reduced. The re-opening of the Mont Blanc tunnel was delayed, in order to correct a number of new found faults. Bertrand Levie, director of the company responsible for Mont Blanc on the French side, told French radio the tunnel was now safe for motorists.

On Saturday, French and Italian officials gathered at both entrances of the tunnel to celebrate its re-opening. Two Roman Catholic priests offered a benediction, and friends and relatives tossed flowers in memory of the 1999 tunnel victims.

But hundreds of protesters were also on hand at both tunnel entrances to denounce the re-opening and, in particular, plans to resume truck traffic, which they claim caused major pollution in the area.