DIGNE, France, Jan 13 (AFP) – Two African soldiers attending France’s elite Saint Cyr military college died of exposure overnight during a training exercise in the Alps, the defence ministry in Paris said Tuesday.
The two men, from Togo and Niger, were on a three-week mountain warfare course near the town of Barcelonnette, in the southern Alps not far from the Italian border. Seven others were found suffering from hypothermia, two seriously.
French and Togolese officials said one of the two who died was the son of the chief of staff of Togo’s armed forces, Zakari Nandja. Three of the injured were also African – from Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Niger.
Around 90 officer cadets divided into three groups were taking part in the exercise, which required them to build overnight shelters at an altitude of around 2,500 metres (8,250 feet), according to local police.
One group was surprised by a sudden snowstorm and tried to make its way to some disused army huts which were nearby. It was on the journey that the men succumbed to the cold.
“Initially weather conditions were difficult but not abnormal. But they deteriorated and one of three groups taking part in the exercise bivouacked in a makeshift shelter,” said Michel Luc, spokesman at the defence ministry.
“When checks were made in the night, it was found that two foreign trainees from Africa had died. The alert was raised and the emergency services were sent to the scene overland – the weather conditions preventing any other means of access,” Luc said.
A team of rescuers including two doctors reached the scene at around 7:00 am, three hours after the alarm was raised.
Based in the Brittany town of Coetquidan, Saint Cyr is France’s equivalent of West Point in the United States and has an annual intake of around 200, of whom between 15 and 20 are normally from abroad, the defence ministry said.
The dead men were on their third and final year and had attained the rank of sub-lieutenant. The mountain warfare training is a regular feature of the course, and no similar accident has ever been recorded, the ministry said.
The prosecutor’s office in Marseille has opened a judicial enquiry, and the army was to launch its own internal investigation.
“The aim will be to determine all the elements … to see if all the rules were respected. We need to lay everything out when things have calmed down,” Luc said.
The authorities in the Alps issued their highest-level avalanche warning Tuesday, and a number of ski slopes have been closed.
Subject: France news