Mon, May 23, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Death count in Chile blizzard accident climbs to 21

NATIONAL CATASTROPHE The number of dead was expected to rise further as searches continued for still-missing young conscripts trapped high in the Andes

AFP , LOS ANGELES, CHILE

A soldier stands guard next to the coffins of comrades who died in a snow storm in the Andes, at the army barracks in Los Angeles, Chile on Saturday.

PHOTO: AP

More frozen bodies were recovered from an area of the Chilean Andes Saturday, bringing to 21 the number of confirmed dead after 45 young conscripts were lost in a blizzard in the Chilean army's worst peacetime disaster.

The commander in chief of the Chilean army vowed to continue the search "until the last one of them is with us," but he has admitted that those still missing since the blizzard struck Wednesday are probably dead.

"The bodies were found in the same condition as the others, perfectly identifiable," General Juan Emilio Cheyre said, announcing the latest recoveries at a military base in the town of Los Angeles, near where the tragedy occurred.

Wrenching scenes of relatives receiving the bodies of their loved ones contrasted with the jubilation of families reunited with 112 soldiers who returned to Los Angeles on Saturday. They survived by crowding into a mountain shelter when the blizzard struck, military sources said.

Search teams, at times hindered by new storms, have combed the area since then as the nation reeled and President Ricardo Lagos announced three days of national mourning.

The soldiers went missing on Wednesday when they were caught in a sudden blizzard while on a march in the high Andes near Antuco, not far from Los Angeles, some 500km south of Santiago.

Lagos flew into the area Saturday to attend a religious service for the lost soldiers and personally express condolences to relatives of the victims, most of whom were conscripts doing mandatory military service who got caught in a snowstorm "whiteout."

Standing before the coffins containing the recovered soldiers' bodies, Lagos said: "Today we bid farewell to these soldiers of the Chilean Army as heroes of peace."

Speaking to the families of soldiers, Lagos gave his and his wife Luisa Duran's condolences, speaking "not as authorities but as parents ... who know how hard it is to lose a child."

"We would like to be able to hold you in a strong embrace, the embrace of the millions of Chileans whose thoughts have been with each and every one of you these past few days," he said, barely able to contain his emotion.

Earlier, in his annual address to lawmakers, made at Valparaiso before he headed south to the area of the tragedy, an emotional Lagos said "our souls and our hearts are in Antuco."

"I think that the tragedy that has befallen us must help us, as have other tragic times in our history, to overcome them," said Lagos, who called for "building a better Chile."

As Lagos spoke in Valparaiso, students took to the streets clashing with police there amid a demonstration against a new law that gives students who attend private universities access to the state scholarship system.

At least 75 students were arrested in the incident which was not related to the mountain tragedy.

Cheyre told reporters at a briefing Friday that the snow training "never should have been carried out."

"There is a responsibility on the part of the command here, a responsibility for having done a march that never should have been done," Cheyre acknowledged.

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