Four dead, 41 missing after 'tsunami of snow'

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The Independent US

Two days after being caught in a fierce snowstorm in the Andes, 41 Chilean soldiers are still missing.

Two days after being caught in a fierce snowstorm in the Andes, 41 Chilean soldiers are still missing.

A vicious "tsunami of snow" engulfed their regiment as they approached the Antuco volcano on an exercise in the south-east of the country on Wednesday. The blizzard was so violent that four soldiers were frozen to death. The fate of 41 other troops, many of them raw conscripts, was not known.

The army was continuing its frantic search in the Los Barros mountain range, close to the Argentinian border, yesterday despite heavy snow fall and strong winds. Some relatives of the missing soldiers have accused the army of keeping information from them.

"They are hiding something," said Jose Bustamamente, father of one of the soldiers. "I'm not going to rest until I have my child in my arms."

The regional army commander, General Rodolfo Gonzalez, denied the accusation. "We are not hiding anything, believe me. We feel as much pain as you feel," he said. "The missing are our children, our soldiers, our officers." Jose Contreras, whose son is among the missing, told a local radio station that the army was only concerned about the fate of the officers, not the soldiers, most of whom were 18 or 19 years old and had started their year-long mandatory draft only the month before.

As the army came under increasing pressure to explain the decisions taken, the government announced an investigation would be held to establish whether anyone should be held responsible for ordering the regiment to march down the mountain despite the forecast of a strong snowstorm in which visibility was reduced to nearly zero.

The families also accuse the army of sending young draftees into a hostile environment without adequately preparing them for what they might face. A senior military spokesman, Colonel Carlos Mezzano, acknowledged that "mistakes may have been made", while he later admitted there were no shelters in the area around the Antuco volcano where the soldiers are believed to be, dimming earlier hopes the unit may be camping safely.

Another commander, General Emilio Cheyre, said the army may have been at fault for not having anticipated the bad weather. But he denied the soldiers were badly equipped for exercises in the Andes, insisting the officers in command of the unit were experienced mountaineers trained to deal with emergencies.

"A unit of this type, surprised by a tsunami of snow, is trained to stop, so it is possible they are all camping," he told journalists. "The fact that they are all members of the same company makes me have hopes they all remain united, together.

"This is an unexpected situation, but for me a united group offers more hope than scattered soldiers. But I do not want to raise false hopes." He said the search for the men would "continue as long as necessary".

The army said 433 soldiers were in the mountains on a strategic exercise when a blinding winter storm hit.

Many managed to hike out on Wednesday and others walked out on Thursday or were found safe in mountain shelters.