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Paris on edge as deadly explosion rocks city ahead of 'yellow vest' protests

Firefighters evacuate an injured person on a stretcher after the explosion of a bakery on the corner of the streets Saint-Cecile and Rue de Trevise in central Paris on January 12, 2019.
THOMAS SAMSON / AFP
Two confirmed dead in explosion likely caused by gas leak, as protests get under throughout the country.

A powerful gas leak explosion in a bakery in a central district of Paris on Saturday killed three and sent social media in a frenzy as the capital braced for renewed 'yellow vest' protests on Saturday.

Confusion arose as four people were confirmed dead, with a corrected death toll later issued saying two firefighters had lost their lives along with a Spanish woman, with another 47 injured, ten of which seriously.

A fire broke out after the blast at around 9am (0800 GMT) in the busy neighborhood, and it took minutes for the police to confirm that the explosion, which took place in a quiet street of central Paris, was likely caused by a gas leak.

Around 200 firefighters were mobilized to battle the fire and rescue residents in neighboring buildings, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told reporters at the scene.

Police closed off streets in front of Opera theater as emergency services landed two helicopters in the street, apparently to evacuate victims.

"The toll appears to be high, and severe," Castaner said, adding that 100 police officers were blocking off several streets in the area, home to restaurants and tourist attractions like the Musee Grevin wax museum and the popular Rue des Martyrs.

Thomas SAMSON (AFP)

"I was sleeping and woke up by the blast wave," Claire Sallavuard, who lives on the Rue de Trevise where the explosion occurred, told AFP.

"All the windows in the apartment exploded, doors were blown off their hinges, I had to walk on the door to leave the room, all the kids were panicking, they couldn't get out of their room," she said.

Rescuers eventually used a ladder to evacuate the family, who lived on the first floor.

Police sources said firefighters had already been responding to an alert of a gas leak at the site when the explosion occurred.

Cars were overturned by the blast and glass and rubble was strewn across large swathes of the street, as fire trucks and police continued to race toward the scene more than an hour later.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also arrived on the scene to survey the damage.

According to the latest numbers released by the police, there were 32 injured, including 12 seriously. At least one more was believed to be in a life-threatening condition.

The two firefighters who died were aged 27 and 28, it added.

A source in the Spanish foreign ministry said a woman who was holidaying with her husband in Paris died in hospital after the blast while another Spanish national was also injured.

The blast struck as the French capital braced for renewed protests, as the 'yellow vest' movement took on its ninth day of weekly action that saw an estimated 84,000 demonstrators across France. 

The French government was expecting renewed numbers for 'Act 9', after a lull during the holiday period, and in preparation for the start of a government-led national consultation on Tuesday, during which French president Emmanuel Macron will go on a tour of the country, region by region.

There will be 5,000 police personnel on the streets of Paris, with 14 armored vehicles deployed in support, and another 80,000 police staff throughout France.

Unlike other demonstrations, a 'yellow vest' protest was registered for this Saturday at the Paris police headquarters - a necessary condition for legal protest in France.

In another, more historical departure from previous protests, a call was put out on social media for protesters to assemble in the central city of Bourges.

At least two major figures of the movement were poised to go to the historical town, sparking concerns that eventually led to local authorities banning any kind of demonstrations.

Bourges, which has a population of 66,000, is right in the center of the country, which could be symbolic of a willingness to show that the protesters represent a wider swathe of the population than the urban

It could also be a strategic choice on the part of the organizers to avoid confrontations with security forces, a regular feature of the previous protests in the capital.

Tensions rose again between government and protesters last week.

The arrest of former professional boxer Christophe Dettinger, middleweight French champion in 2007 and 2008, for assaulting a policeman last week sparked calls for violent confrontations, especially from the travelling community. Dettinger was born in a yeniche family, a travelling community, and is known as the 'Gipsy of Massy'.

On Friday night, Macron further sparked furor by saying that the current problems France was saying was due to "too many of our countrymates thinking they can get something without making an effort."

"We often forget that in our republic, there are rights, but there are also duties," the president said, speaking at an annual event for a contingent of baking trainees at the Elysee presidential palace.

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