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Heat crisis: French official quits

Abenhaim's office was criticized for its handling of the heat crisis.

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PARIS, France -- A top French health official has resigned following criticism of his office's handling of a massive heat wave blamed for thousands of deaths.

Lucien Abenhaim, France's director general of health, stepped down Monday amid calls for the resignation of his boss, Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei, who said the death toll from the heat could be as high as 5,000.

Mattei accepted the resignation. Abenhaim suggested criticism of the government was unfair.

"We faced a heat wave catastrophe the likes of which had not been seen for more than 100 years," he told France-Info radio, The Associated Press reported.

"But clearly in our country we tend a bit to look for scapegoats, which is totally unacceptable."

The departure could increase pressure on Mattei, who has faced calls to resign by some leftist opposition politicians.

The government did not declare an emergency until a week into a nine-day desert-like weather pattern across France earlier this month.

Mattei said the government was not informed early enough about the scale of the crisis.

"I am now privately convinced that ... we did not have the information or the warning signal that we should have had," AP quoted him as saying.

"I feel that as soon as we were alerted, we did what we had to do but I'm not sure we were alerted as early as was desirable."

Over the weekend, Mattei predicted a final toll between 1,600 and 3,000 deaths, but a doctors' group estimated a toll of up to 5,000. Last week the French government issued a statement estimating the toll at 3,000.

In an RTL radio interview, Mattei said: "The figure of 5,000 was mentioned . ... It's one hypothesis. It's plausible but it's just a hypothesis."

Meanwhile, an official with the country's largest funeral service, which accounts for 25 percent of funerals nationwide, estimated Monday there may be as many as 7,000 deaths stemming from the heat wave.

Dominique Dissard, executive vice president of PFG General Funeral Services, said a warehouse storing bodies in Rungis south of Paris was overcrowded. He said it could take two weeks to bury the dead.

"It is like a war -- a war against the heat," Dissard said.

The government has recalled medical staff from holidays under an emergency plan designed to deal with terrorist attacks, natural disasters or epidemics.

The crisis is likely to dominate Thursday's cabinet meeting, which will mark the government's return from the summer holiday.

Conservative Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who already cut short his holiday, has stood by his health minister, who has refused to step down.

Raffarin told the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche he was "appalled" by calls for Mattei's resignation.

"All of this is ridiculous. Politics is not a permanent settlement of scores. Faced with such human tragedies, the time is for solidarity, not for sterile polemic," he said.

Victims were mainly elderly, and many were found at home alone as the traditional August holiday exodus leaves city centers deserted.

Though the weather has cooled, hospitals remain on alert amid fears of a new spike in temperatures.

-- CNN Correspondent Chris Burns contributed to this report.

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