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BONNEVILLE, France, July 27 (AFP) - A French court Wednesday found the main defendants in the Mont Blanc tunnel disaster trial guilty of manslaughter and gave a six-month jail term to Gerard Roncoli, the former French head of tunnel security.
Gilbert Degrave, the Belgian driver whose lorry sparked the deadly March 1999 inferno that killed 39 people, was given a four-month suspended jail term.
Remy Chardon, former president of the French tunnel concession-holder ATMB, was given a two-year suspended jail term and a EUR 15,000 fine, while Michel Charlet, mayor of the town of Chamonix, got a six-month suspended term and the same fine.
The blaze in the 11 kilometre (6.8 mile) link between France and Italy under Western Europe's tallest mountain, was one of the continent's worst ever road disasters and led to new safety norms inside Alpine tunnels.
In three months of hearings that ended in April, the court was told that blunders, neglected procedures and failed coordination between the French and Italian authorities aggravated the catastrophe and cost many lives.
Driving a cargo of flour and margarine, Degrave saw fire and smoke emerging from his vehicle half-way through the tunnel, prompting him to stop and escape on foot.
The fire spread to the traffic backed up behind, engulfing 24 goods vehicles, nine cars and a motorcycle in an inferno which raged for more than two days and reached temperatures of 1,000 degrees Centigrade (1832 F). Most of the dead suffocated from the poisonous smoke.
The technical report into the fire established that the nearest smoke detector was out of order and the radio frequencies used inside the tunnel were different from the ones used by French emergency services.
It was also shown that the Italian authorities mistakenly pumped fresh air into the fire zone -- unwittingly increasing its intensity -- instead of extracting the smoke.
Six other people including the tunnel's former French and Italian operating chiefs and regulators got suspended terms and fines, and three companies -- the French and Italian concession-holders and the tunnel operating company SGTMB -- received fines of up to EUR 150,000.
Two individuals were acquitted, as was the Swedish vehicle manufacturer Volvo. The court had heard there was no evidence of a design fault in Degrave's Volvo truck.
The Mont Blanc tunnel, opened in 1965, underwent a major three-year renovation after the fire, with computerised detection equipment, extra security bays and a parallel escape shaft installed.
Heavy traffic was reduced sharply after the tunnel's re-opening in 2002, with strict rules imposed on the minimum distance between goods vehicles.
However in the last two months the number of lorries using the tunnel has more than tripled following a fire which killed two people in the Frejus tunnel to the south.
The Frejus tunnel should re-open by the end of August.
Subject: French news
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