Foot-and-mouth disease struck two farms in The Netherlands as the livestock plague sweeping Britain made fresh inroads into continental Europe. The European Commission immediately proposed a ban on Dutch exports of animals at risk.

The Netherlands outbreaks made the country the second on the continent after France to be hit by the highly infectious disease.

All farm animals in the vicinity of the Dutch cases at Olst and Oene, and at a third location where the disease is suspected, were due to be destroyed. The Dutch outbreaks came despite a government ban on the movement of farm animals within the country.

More than 220,000 animals have been slaughtered in Britain and another 90,000 are due to be killed. The government also wants to kill hundreds of thousands of healthy animals to stem the FMD epidemic.

The Dutch, morally outraged by the proposed slaughter of thousands of healthy animals, favour vaccination to repel the disease. Farm minister Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst told an EU meeting in Brussels that building funeral pyres for huge numbers of animals that could be vaccinated was unethical. His call was echoed by Germany's biggest farm union, DBV, whose president said in a television interview the union had asked EU authorities to consider blanket vaccination.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists the outbreak is under control, but the continuing rise in the number of outbreaks to more than 400 suggests it remains rampant.

After telling people to stay away from rural areas in order to prevent the spread of the disease, government ministers are now anxious to reverse the impression that the British countryside is effectively off limits. But this new policy has been attacked by some farmers who still believe the movement of people around the countryside should be discouraged. The virus can be carried on people's clothes and on vehicle tyres.

French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany says France felt increasingly close to controlling its outbreak but remains at risk because of its proximity to Britain.

European Union veterinary experts have extended their ban on British livestock and meat exports until April 4, but agreed to relax curbs on French livestock exports and meat sales next week provided there were no new outbreaks.

Northern Ireland, however, announced plans to relax foot-and-mouth restrictions around its only infected site this week as the disease appeared to have been contained.

No foot-and-mouth disease has so far been confirmed in the Irish Republic, where stringent defence measures are in place, including a cordon of police and troops along the border with the British province of Northern Ireland.

Reuters