An Indian court has rejected a government plea to reduce charges against a former official of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Company in connection with one of the world's worst industrial disasters. Victims of the disaster 18 years ago in Bophal have welcomed the ruling as a significant victory.

The Central Bureau of Investigation had asked Bhopal's city court to scale down the gravity of the charges against former Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson from culpable homicide to negligence.

Chief magistrate Rameshwar Khote rejected the plea, saying the existing charge of culpable homicide must stand, and the Indian government should take steps to speed up extradition proceedings against Mr. Anderson.

He said the accused had not asked any Indian court to reduce the charges, and a permanent warrant has been issued for his arrest.

The charges relate to a deadly gas leak in 1984 from a chemical factory in the central Indian city of Bhopal. The plant was owned by Union Carbide, a company that is now defunct. Nearly 4,000 people died within hours, as the gas crept over the sleeping city. Nearly 10,000 deaths have since been linked to the disaster, tens of thousands suffer from illnesses related to the poisonous gas leak.

Mr. Anderson has not appeared in any Indian court since the case opened in 1992, and is considered a fugitive under Indian law.

Victims of the gas disaster had angrily opposed the move to reduce charges against him, saying it would help Mr. Anderson escape justice. The charge of culpable homicide carries a jail sentence of up to 20 years, the charge of negligence, a maximum sentence of two years.

N.D. Jayaprakash represents several organizations of Bhopal gas victims. He says they feel let down by the government failure to take action to extradite Mr. Anderson. He says the government's move is prompted by its desire not to scare away foreign investors. "They feel that the government of India has been neglecting, compromising the rights of the victims," he said. "It is because of pressure from multinational companies in the United States that they [the government of India] are unwilling to formally approach the U.S. administration on this matter."

The Central Bureau of Investigation said it wanted the charges against Mr. Anderson altered to bring them in line with former Indian company officials, who now face the lesser charge of negligence.

The Indian government settled the civil case against Union Carbide in 1989 after the company accepted moral responsibility and paid nearly $500 million as compensation. But criminal cases against the accused are still pending.

Several environmental groups welcomed the court decision, but said the case must be speeded up. The Indian judicial system is notoriously slow, and cases often drag on for decades.