Thousands evacuated in Lourdes hoax bomb scare

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A bomb threat forced the temporary evacuation of the Roman Catholic sanctuaries in the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes on Sunday, as 30,000 worshippers celebrated the Assumption.

The regional prefect, a state representative and police chief, Rene Bidal told AFP that bomb squad officers had finished a search of the site's various shrines and found no sign of explosives following the apparent hoax.

The site will reopen in time for the closing of the annual ceremonies, allowing thousands of pilgrims from around the world to return to the grotto where a 19th century serving girl believed she saw the Virgin Mary.

Earlier, bomb disposal teams and sniffer dogs had scoured the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the Basilica of the Rosary, the site's offices and hospitals and the underground cave church of Saint Pius X.

"A bomb warning was received at the police station, announcing that four bombs were going to go off at around 3.00pm in the sanctuaries," the site's press officer Pierre Adias told AFP just before 2.00pm (1200 GMT).

Appeals to worshippers were broadcast in six languages on loudspeakers, and the shrine complex was calmly evacuated without incident. Worshippers were allowed back less than three hours later.

Some sang hymns as they waited nearby for the shrine to reopen.

"The start of the 15 August procession, which is a key moment of the pilgrimage, has been maintained for 4.30pm, so as to disturb the cultural event as little as possible," Bidal said.

"The call came in around noon from a telephone box from a man with a strong Mediterranean accent who seemed quite determined. We had to take the threat seriously," he added.

On August 15, Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary's ascent to heaven, and Lourdes -- a southern French town where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared in visions 152 years ago -- is a popular site to mark the event.

Lourdes has been one of the most important centres of Catholic pilgrimage in Europe since 1858, and the small community of only 16,000 permanent residents now hosts around six million visitors per year.

The town owes its fame to Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 was an impoverished 14-year-old serving girl when she had the first of what the Church now recognises as 18 visions of the Virgin Mary.

A freshwater spring was found in a cave at the site of the visions and now serves as a source of water for pools in which sick pilgrims hope to find cures for various worldly ailments.

Bernadette was canonised as a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1933.

© 2010 AFP

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