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Suspected bird flu decimates French poultry farm

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VERSAILLEUX, France, Feb 23 (Reuters) France said today a suspected outbreak of H5N1 bird flu had decimated thousands of turkeys at a farm in the east of the country, and the government pledged 52 million euros (62.19 million dollar) in new aid.

If confirmed, the case would mark the first time the virus has spread to domestic farm birds in the European Union and could deal a heavy blow to France's already battered six billion euros-a-year poultry industry, the biggest in the bloc.

The Farms Ministry said a high mortality rate among turkeys was discovered at the farm, which has more than 11,000 birds and is situated in the department of Ain, where two cases of the disease have already been confirmed in wild ducks.

Local sources said around 80 percent of the birds at the farm, which is in a region famous for the quality of its chickens, had already died. Test results are due on Friday.

The farm has been cordoned off and all remaining turkeys were to be culled, the ministry said.

Authorities said they were also investigating seven dead hens found abandoned at a roadside in southeast France. The authorities in Lozere said tests were under way and a police probe had been launched.

Farms Minister Dominique Bussereau held emergency talks on the deepening crisis with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who announced fresh aid to the sector.

''I fully realise the extent to which this is a hardship for all poultry breeders in our country,'' Villepin told reporters after the meeting. ''We will have to adapt aid as the situation develops.'' VACCINATION A security zone of three km and a surveillance zone of seven km had been set up around the farm as is usual under European Union emergency measures.

''For the moment it's just a suspicion but we have to kill off the flock this afternoon, even before we have the final results, so that we are in line with international rules,'' Bussereau told the Senate.

All movement within the security area had been restricted, and all vehicles would be disinfected.

''As a precautionary measure, we will completely close off the initial three kilometre security zone. We will only let residents in,'' said local police chief Christophe Perret.

France has said it planned to vaccinate some 900,000 farm geese and ducks in three departments thought most at risk from the H5N1 virus and where they could not be kept inside. Media reports have estimated the cost of the programme at 1.6 million euros (1.91 million dollar).

Bussereau said he was discussing with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin whether it would be possible to vaccinate poultry in the departments that make up the Bresse region in eastern France as well.

He said the latest case highlighted the importance of stepping up border surveillance.

French poultry producers have estimated a 30 percent drop in sales since the bird flu crisis started in November at a cost of 130 million euros to the sector, Bussereau said.

Villepin announced a government aid package worth 52 million euros for the poultry sector to cope with the crisis. The aid will cover 20 million euros for farmers, 30 million for companies in the sector and two million euros for a campaign to promote the consumption of chicken.

Reuters PDS VP0040

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