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Total suggests possibility of Islamist responsibility for 2001 AZF plant explosion

23 July 2012

New evidence was submitted to the courts on July 4 during the criminal negligence trial of oil group Total's Grande Paroisse subsidiary, accused by prosecutors of responsibility for the huge blast at the AZF fertiliser plant in Toulouse on 21 September 2001 which left 31 dead and 30,000 homes damaged.

The AZF fertiliser plant explosion in 2001 caused 31 deaths and damaged a large part of the city of Toulouse
The AZF fertiliser plant explosion in 2001 caused 31 deaths and damaged a large part of the city of Toulouse

This case is an appeal against the 2009 ruling that Total could not be held responsible for the explosion. Former Total CEO Thierry Desmarest was also cleared of responsibility at the time, as was the plant’s former manager Serge Biechelin and subsidary Grande Paroisse.

Grande Paroisse and Biechelin are the sole defendants in the new appeal.

Total’s defence lawyers are now suggesting that staff who were also members of a local Islamist group could have been responsible for the explosion.

Two employees of AZF, including Hassan Jandoubi, who was killed in the blast, were members of a group of radical Islamists based in the village of Artigat, Ariege. According to the new case submission, the group had strong links with the jihadist Abdelkader Merah, brother of Mohamed Merah, who murdered seven people in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012.

Eight members of the group were imprisoned after an investigation into the group’s links with terrorism in Iraq in 2007.

The defence team has presented evidence that there was a smaller explosion before the second, more devastating one, and that this could have been set off by a terrorist on site. Total's lawyers also say the fact that the explosion happened only 10 days after the 9/11 attacks is more than a coincidence.  

Another defence submission is that First World War explosives buried beneath the site could have caused or exacerbated the explosion. A blast 1,200 metres from the site of the AZF plant at the Saica Pack factory in December 2011 has been put down to the presence of these explosives beneath the site.

Sophie Vittecoq, head of an AZF victims’ group, said the two new submissions were an attempt by Total's lawyers to generate confusion and whitewash the group’s responsibility for the tragedy.

Three hundred tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored on site and the official inquiry concluded that the chemical had exploded following improper handling.

The whole plant was destroyed, leaving a massive crater up to 30 m deep and 100 m across, and steel girders were found 3 km away from the explosion site. The blast measured 3.4 on the Richter scale, with an estimated power equivalent to more than 20 tons of TNT.

The disaster caused 31 deaths, including a pupil in a school nearby, with 2,500 seriously wounded and 8,000 other casualties. 30,000 homes were damaged across Toulouse and two thirds of the city's windows were shattered.

Due to its proximity to inhabited areas, several schools, one university campus and two hospitals had to be evacuated, with 40,000 people — 10 % of the population of Toulouse — made homeless for a few days.

Damages already paid out by insurance groups currently exceed 2 billion euros.

The new case involves 2,700 plaintiffs, 60 lawyers and more than 200 witnesses, with judgement expected on September 24.

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