Sarkozy promises 'severe' action after shootings at military display

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President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised "rapid and severe" punishments after a French marine paratroop sergeant wounded 17 people, including a three-year-old child and his parents, at a military display.

The sergeant used live, instead of blank, bullets during a hostage release exercise at the close of an open weekend at a military base in Carcassonne, in south-western France, on Sunday evening. How the soldier came to possess the live ammunition, illegally, and load it into his rifle instead of blanks will be the subject of separate military and criminal investigations.

The French army insisted that the incident, in which five children were wounded, was an accident. But the Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, said a deliberate crime or some form of "mental disturbance" could not be ruled out.

Questions about military discipline were reinforced when it was revealed that live ammunition had also been found wrapped inside a packet of condoms in a street near the base.

One spectator said: "Suddenly people started dropping. We thought that it was part of the exercise until we saw the blood. Almost straight away, one of the officers in the loudspeaker wagon shouted 'cease-fire'."

Fifteen of the 1,000 civilian spectators and two soldiers had been struck by at least one bullet. Only two of them were still giving cause for concern yesterday – including the three-year-old, who was hit near the heart.