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from The Guardian Saturday 14 April 2001

Mustard gas leak town evacuated

Paul Webster in Paris

About 15,000 people living around the British first world war battlefield of Vimy in Flanders were forced to leave their homes yesterday after a huge dump of Great War ammunition started leaking waves of deadly mustard gas.

British tourists visiting cemeteries and battlegrounds in the Pas de Calais were among families told to stay out of the area where 173 tonnes of recently uncovered explosive weapons, including 16,000 shells and bombs, were stored in the open waiting to be destroyed.

The evacuation of Vimy, with a population of 4,700, and the villages of Farbuf, Willerval, Acheville and Arleux-en-Gohelle, came only a day after 10,000 people were ferried out of the centre of Lorient following the discovery of a 500lb second world war British bomb. The boobytrapped missile was safely defused.

But the alert in the Atlantic port bore no comparison to the emergency around the Vimy dump where army engineers stock much of the 500 tonnes of rusting first and second world war ammunition recovered every year in France. The holding area on farmland is unguarded and protected only by a barbed wire fence.

Local people have repeatedly expressed concern over the dangers and the frequent thefts by souvenir hunters. Yesterday, about 3,500 fire-men, police and soldiers, including 50 bomb disposal experts, were drafted into the area, which 500,000 people visit each year.

The emergency evacuation, in which 130 buses were sent from Lille, appears to have been precipitated by the extremely heavy rain in northern France which has caused widespread flooding in the Somme and Pas de Calais where hundreds of families have had to be rescued from flooded homes. Several people, including farmers, said they would not obey a 6pm deadline to quit Vimy after security forces went from door to door to tell them of the danger. There was a flurry of panic when parents were told to take their children out of school and seek safety. "Everybody was running this way and that," a nursery school worker said. "People are leaving with their TVs and stereos because they are afraid of looting."

While evacuees were found emergency lodging in hotels, hospitals, holiday centres and schools, the army moved in with refrigerated lorries to take the unstable ammunition to an army depot in the Marne where it will be destroyed in an operation that could take up to 10 days.

Vimy was one of the most bitterly fought battlefields in the first world war. Commonwealth troops seized the town in April 1917, taking 10,000 prisoners.

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