Dozens of Chilean conscripts 'left to die in the snow by their officers'

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The Independent US

Furious relatives of soldiers among the 45 feared frozen to death in the Chilean Andes raged at military officers yesterday for leaving dozens of ill-equipped teenage recruits out in a blizzard.

Furious relatives of soldiers among the 45 feared frozen to death in the Chilean Andes raged at military officers yesterday for leaving dozens of ill-equipped teenage recruits out in a blizzard.

While rescuers looked for 29 still missing, angry families identified 16 bodies recovered on the slopes of the Antuco volcano near the border with Argentina and taken to the army base in Los Angeles in southern Chile.

"My son and his companions were abandoned by the officers. They were coming down together in a group and people were falling. The officer just let 28 kids fall and went on to the shelter," said Gloria Bastias, whose son Jonathan Bustos died in the tragedy on Wednesday.

The soldiers were on a training march when the area was hit by the worst snowstorm in decades. As many as 45 soldiers - all conscripts, with the exception of one officer - were believed to have died. The weather cleared sufficiently on Friday for rescue patrols to search for the missing, but not for helicopters to join them.

The head of the army, General Emilio Cheyre, joined the search, but emerged from the mountains late on Friday to announce that the missing soldiers were probably dead. Much of the area was under six feet of snow.

Gen Cheyre removed from their posts the top three commanders of the regiment to which the soldiers belonged and ordered an investigation into their actions. "The march should not have been started, never, under those weather conditions. And if it was started, it should have been suspended," he said. "Those were officers specialised in mountaineering, and they should have known better."

One survivor, 18-year-old Juan Millar, said it was snowing so hard he couldn't see. Just when he felt he could go no farther, his lieutenant ordered the unit to drop their 100lb backpacks. "At one point, I fell to the ground and nearly fainted."

As he trudged through the knee-high snow, he watched comrades tumble into drifts. More experienced corporals pulled some of them on to sleeping bags, which they used as sleds to pull them down the slopes. But most of the soldiers were teenagers who began their military service just last month.

Pte Millar, recovering at headquarters, is haunted by the idea that some of the friends he saw fall never got up. "They just stayed in the snow," he said. "The corporals had to abandon them to save their own lives."

In Los Angeles, 400 miles south of Santiago, relatives gathered at the headquarters of 17th Mountain Regiment. Some accused the army of not doing enough. "They are only concerned about the officers, not the soldiers," said Jose Contreras, whose 18-year-old son was among the missing.

Initially nearly 100 members of the 485-soldier regiment were missing, but dozens had been successfully located over the previous two days. An officer who was found on Friday, Captain Claudio Gutierrez, refused to come down from the mountain and instead took up the search for the others, officials said. Gen Cheyre ordered another 110 soldiers who made it to a shelter to remain there until the weather cleared sufficiently to get them out safely.

A news conference by the regional army commander, Gen Rodolfo Gonzalez, was interrupted by relatives shouting insults. He told them that the army was doing what it could. Surviving soldiers, most of whom were following orders not to give their names to the media, backed up his account. "I looked back and saw some comrades fall. The corporals picked them up," said Pte Millar, who chose to be identified. "But then they couldn't help any more."

The young private was part of a group of 30 soldiers who found a shelter. "I just looked forward," said another soldier who would not give his name. "I didn't want to look to the side or back, so I wouldn't see my comrades falling." (AP; Reuters)