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BONNEVILLE, France, Jan 31 (AFP) - A major trial aimed at establishing responsibility for the 1999 inferno in the Mont-Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy that killed 39 people was set to begin Monday in eastern France.
Sixteen individuals and companies are defendants in the manslaughter case, including the driver of the truck which caught fire half-way through the 11-kilometre (6.8-mile) tunnel through the Alps.
The blaze spread to 24 other vehicles backed up behind the stopped truck, creating intense heat and deadly, thick smoke.
The truck's manufacturer, Volvo, the Italian and French companies that manage the tunnel, safety regulators and the mayor of the nearby town of Chamonix are among the others in the dock.
The trial is expected to last three months, and will examine the chain of events - and several mistakes - that occurred in the tragedy on March 24, 1999.
Arguments remain as to whether the initial spark in the blaze was caused by a cigarette stub, a fault in the Volvo's engine, or poor maintenance.
The tunnel was closed for three years after the blaze and underwent a major renovation, with computerised smoke detection equipment, extra security bays and a parallel escape shaft.
Coordination between the French and Italian sides - which was strongly criticised in the technical report - has been improved.
The Italian company that jointly operates the tunnel, the SITMB, last week paid EUR 13.5 million (USD 17.5 million) into an escrow account for the families of the victims, to be paid out once 80 percent of the 238 relatives agree to accept it as settlement.
But SITMB's lawyer, Bernard Asso, stressed on Thursday: "This is not an acknowledgement of liability."
Subject: French News
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