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Explosion at chemical plant in France kills 18, hurts 200

TOULOUSE, France (AP) -- When they heard the huge blast, many people thought it was a terror attack. But the explosion that ripped through a chemical fertilizer plant on Friday, killing 18 people and injuring 200, was most likely an accident, officials said.

The explosion leveled buildings and shattered windows miles away, collapsed dozens of roofs and left a brown haze hanging over this southwestern French city that is home to nearly a million people and to the country's aeronautics industry. Much of the plant was in ruins and the blast left behind a 50-yard-wide crater.

"We all thought it was a bomb," said Guy Physsens, a truck driver who was delivering supplies to the factory when the blast went off.

The explosion at the AZF chemical plant in an industrial zone south of the city center was on a par with an earthquake of magnitude 3.2, the national earthquake surveillance center said.

Late Friday, rescue workers were still searching through the debris for survivors.

Earlier in the day, officials blocked off the industrial area, evacuated schools, a hospital and other buildings, closed the airport and subway, rerouted drivers around the city and told people to stay home as a precaution.

Case of mad cow disease is first confirmed in Asia

TOKYO (AP) -- A test has shown that a Japanese animal slaughtered in August carried mad cow disease, the Ministry of Agriculture said today, confirming the first known case of the deadly brain-wasting illness in Asia.

The Japanese government had announced last week that the 5-year-old dairy cow in central Japan might have suffered from the sickness and sent a tissue sample to experts in Britain for a conclusive diagnosis. The results came back late Friday, the ministry said.

Officials have been scrambling to reassure Japanese consumers and to persuade other countries, including the United States and several Asian nations, to drop bans imposed on Japanese meat after last week's announcement.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is believed to spread by recycling meat and bones from infected animals back into cattle feed.

The disease, which has ravaged Europe's cattle industry, is thought to cause the fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans who eat infected beef.

Taiwan opposition party ousts its former chairman

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) -- Taiwan's largest opposition party revoked former President Lee Teng-hui's membership on Friday, punishing the man nicknamed "Mr. Democracy" for stumping for a rival party.

The Nationalists' decision to oust Lee would have been almost unimaginable a few years ago when the 78-year-old politician was at the height of his popularity and controlled the party with a tight grip.

But since retiring from the presidency and giving up his top party post last year, Lee has feuded with the Nationalists. In recent months, he began publicly bashing the party he led for 12 years, accusing it of being too friendly with rival China and of causing gridlock in the legislature.

Last month, Lee supporters -- including several Nationalists -- created a new party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, and Lee has been campaigning for its candidates ahead of December legislative elections.

Fed up with Lee's behavior, the Nationalist Party's disciplinary committee Friday decided for the first time in the party's 107-year history to revoke a former chairman's party membership.

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