French army chief resigns over mistake-shooting
France's army chief of staff resigned Tuesday, two days after a soldier wounded 17 people.2 July 2008
PARIS - France's army chief of staff resigned Tuesday, two days after a soldier wounded 17 people by mistakenly firing live ammunition into the crowd during a display at an army base, the presidency said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy promised severe punishment following the shooting, which happened as hundreds of parents and children watched a mock hostage rescue operation Sunday near the southwestern city of Carcassonne.
Army chief of staff General Bruno Cuche offered his resignation to Sarkozy, who accepted it, the president's office said in a statement, calling it a "powerful gesture".
Fifteen bystanders including five children were wounded in the shooting as were two soldiers. A three-year-old boy was in a serious but stable condition after taking bullets in the heart and in the arm.
The sergeant who loaded the wrong ammunition, meanwhile, was charged Tuesday by a court in Montpellier, his lawyer Jean-Robert Phung said. He faces up to three years in prison if convicted.
The unnamed 28-year-old, formally suspended by the army earlier in the day, stands accused of contravening security regulations and causing "unintentional injuries" that led to work incapacity.
Phung said that the sergeant "acknowledges and accepts" negligence, adding that his client feels "relieved" now that the critical label has been removed by doctors treating his victims.
"That was all he was thinking about," Phung added. "He has shown immaculate dignity, saying: 'I will accept responsibility for whatever I must. I committed an enormous professional error."
Prosecutor Brice Robin revealed that the man had "deliberately" held on to the live ammunition round from a previous exercise, despite regulations stating that unused bullets must always be returned to stock.
According to Robin, the sergeant "thinks he forget to hand them back" and insists that it was the first time he had done that.
The sergeant, who had received good marks throughout his eight-year military career, has been described as an experienced soldier with no history of psychological problems.
Robin has been able to lean on real-time footage in his investigation, filmed by a fellow soldier.
Cuche, who served as a commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo in 1999, stands down after two years in the top post.
The 60-year-old chief of staff announced his resignation in a written message to the army's 130,600 personnel.
Morin paid tribute to his decision, saying on RTL radio the general had "acknowledged his role of leader and his responsibility as leader".
He said the general considered himself "first and foremost responsible, as the army chief of staff," calling him "a truly great soldier, a man who is aware of his responsibilities, and of the image of the army."
Morin said Cuche spontaneously raised the possibility of standing down within hours of the shooting.
But a French army source told AFP on condition of anonymity that Cuche was stung into resigning by criticism made by Sarkozy. The source said the shooting had sparked a "crisis of confidence between the Elysee and the military".
"The head of state targeted the military brass," the source said, adding that Cuche was "extremely affected" by Sarkozy's comments.
After visiting the wounded children in hospital Monday, Sarkozy said the shooting was the result of "unacceptable negligence".
Cuche's second in command, General Elrick Irastorza, will step in as interim chief of staff until a successor is appointed.
The resignation comes at a time when tensions are high between the military top brass and the Elysee, over Sarkozy's plans to slash the country's defence budget, with a 17 percent cut in army numbers.
However, Cushe insisted his decision to quit was "exclusively linked" to the Carcassonne calamity.
[AFP / Expatica]