French minister plays down report of rift between Sarkozy and military

2nd July 2008, Comments 0 comments

Defence Minister maintains the president’s harsh comments were referring to the incident and not the military institutions.

2 July 2008

PARIS - France's defence minister played down Wednesday reports of a rift between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the military after the head of the French army resigned over a shooting accident at a military show.

Army chief of staff Bruno Cuche resigned on Tuesday, two days after a soldier wounded 17 people including five children by mistakenly firing live ammunition into the crowd during a mock hostage rescue operation.

An army source told AFP the 60-year-old general was stung into resigning by criticism from Sarkozy, who reportedly lashed out at the military brass after visiting the victims in southwestern France on Monday.

According to both Le Point news website and Liberation newspaper, a furious Sarkozy told Cuche and other top officers, "You are not responsible people, you are not professionals!"

"Sarkozy provokes a crisis with the army," ran a headline on the website of French news weekly Le Point. Liberation wrote: "Sarkozy makes the army crack."

Defence Minister Herve Morin insisted on Europe 1 radio that, "The president of the republic was speaking about the incident. He never targeted the military institutions."

"I was there... What the president was referring to by saying 'All of this is not responsible' or 'All of this is not professional' was not the institution but the incident itself."

The shooting comes at a time of tensions between Sarkozy and the military brass over plans to slash the country's defence budget, with a 17 percent cut in army numbers.

Cuche insisted on Tuesday his decision to stand down was "exclusively linked" to the Carcassonne accident.

"As leader of the military, I intend to fully shoulder my responsibilities," he said in a message to army personnel.

The 28-year-old sergeant responsible for the shooting was suspended and charged Tuesday with breach of security regulations and causing "unintentional injuries". He faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

A prosecutor said the soldier had "deliberately" held on to live ammunition from a previous exercise, which he mistakenly used to reload his rifle, despite rules stating that unused bullets must be returned to stock.

[AFP / Expatica]

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