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French explosion possible terrorist attack, official says

Friday, October 5, 2001

TOULOUSE, France -- France's environment minister said Thursday that a chemical plant blast last month that killed 29 people may have been a terrorist attack.

Yves Cochet's comments came after revelations that a man found dead at the site in Toulouse was known to police for possible Islamic fundamentalist sympathies and was involved in altercations before the blast with workers displaying the American flag in sympathy with victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"A new piece of information reached us today which shows that there might have been a terrorist origin" to the blast, Cochet said on LCI television. "We are not ruling out any hypothesis, including that of an accident." Cochet did not say what the new piece of information was, and his ministry did not immediately return a call for comment.

Last week, Toulouse's prosecutor, who is leading the investigation, said he was "99 percent" certain that the Sept. 21 explosion at the AZF chemical fertilizer plant was accidental.

Investigating magistrates visited the explosion site Tuesday, and police are still questioning plant employees.

News reports Thursday quoted police officials as saying that Hassan Jandoubi, 35, a French national born in Tunisia and working at the plant, was found dead at the scene.

The reports said Jandoubi was hired to work at the AZF plant by a subcontractor shortly before the explosion, as little as five days before, according to Le Figaro. It said he was believed to have been involved in altercations on the eve and morning of the blast with workers displaying the U.S. flag.

Police officials refused to comment on reports concerning Jandoubi, with some saying they were disturbed by a rash of imprecise media reports on the investigation, which is not yet complete.

In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, an investigator said it took five days to get permission to search Jandoubi's apartment, a delay that "spoiled" the investigation.

"The apartment had been completely cleaned out. No clothes, no photos, nothing," said the investigator, who spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity. "If we had been allowed to do our jobs, perhaps there wouldn't be this uncertainty."

Police say there are followers of several Islamic groups in the low-income Toulouse suburb of Mirail. One police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the groups "have woven networks that have been around for a long time through the mosques they frequented."

The Toulouse blast killed 29 people, injured hundreds, and damaged scores of buildings -- schools, hospitals, businesses and homes.

AZF is the brand name under which Grande Paroisse, France's largest fertilizer manufacturer, sells its products. Grande Paroisse is owned by Atofina, the chemicals unit of TotalFinaElf -- the world's fourth-biggest oil group.


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