French defence minister heads to avalanche tragedy site

19th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

France's defence minister headed to the French Alps Tuesday, the site of the second deadly avalanche within a week, as a top expert warned that an unusually mild autumn was causing the snowslides.

Five members of the foreign legion were killed on Monday and eight injured when an avalanche swept a party of 50 soldiers on a training exercise.

The accident happened near the resort of Valfrejus, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Albertville, the host city of the 1992 Winter Olympics.

It was the second mountain tragedy in France in the space of a week after two French teenage students and a Ukrainian tourist died in an avalanche nearby on Wednesday.

"Snow fell at the end of November onto warm ground then began to change," said Dominique Letang, director of the National Agency for the Study of Snow and Avalanches (ANENA).

"The base level of the snow is not sticking together. It's something that is neither sticking to the ground nor the snow that is falling on top of it," added Letang.

Dozens die each year in avalanches in France's popular ski resorts. At least 45 people died in snowslides during the 2014-15 winter season in France, according to ANENA, more than double the previous year.

The deadliest avalanche in France's history occurred in 1970 when 39 people were killed after an avalanche buried their chalet at the Val d'Isere ski resort.

- Helicopters, dogs and doctors -

The victims of Monday's accident were among a group of about 50 soldiers taking part in the skiing exercise.

They included one Frenchman, while the nationalities of the others has not been disclosed.

The French Foreign Legion attracts recruits from around the world, and a police source said Monday that the group included soldiers from Nepal and eastern Europe.

The snowslide, which took place in the early afternoon in an area that was not part of a ski resort, engulfed a total of 13 skiers in the group, who were equipped with avalanche victim detectors.

Three helicopters were deployed for the search, as well as five police dogs and three doctors.

Albertville prosecutor Jean-Pascal Violet said interviews with the survivors were under way "to try to understand what happened and why".

A snow and avalanche expert will examine the site "as soon as conditions allow", Violet told AFP, adding that autopsies would begin Wednesday.

French prosecutors are looking into whether they or military authorities should handle the probe of the accident. If investigators find evidence of criminal wrongdoing the military would take the case.

The regiment to which the soldiers were attached is specialised in mountain warfare and all the members have military skiing qualifications.

They were in the mountains in preparation for their departure on an operation.

The unit experienced a similar tragedy in 2012 in the Alps when an avalanche swept away five of its members, leaving one dead.

© 2016 AFP

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