CARCASSONNE, France (AFP) — President Nicolas Sarkozy promised swift and severe punishment Monday after a soldier shot and wounded 17 people, including a three-year-old boy and both his parents, at an open day at an army barracks.
The sergeant opened up with an assault rifle, firing live rounds instead of blanks into a crowd of hundreds of visitors watching a hostage-taking exercise Sunday at the base near the southwestern city of Carcassonne.
A man who witnessed the shooting told AFP that "suddenly, people were falling, we thought it was part of the exercise, and then we saw blood."
Sarkozy said after he visited some of the wounded in a Carcassonne hospital that the shooting did not appear to be criminal but that it was the result of "unacceptable negligence" for which he promised a "rapid and severe reaction."
A senior army officer insisted that the incident was almost certainly the result of an "unintentional" error.
Fifteen civilians were among those injured, including the three-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl who were both operated on overnight and were described Monday as being in a stable condition.
Both the boy's parents were also shot in the incident, officials said. Two soldiers were also injured.
The soldier who fired the shots from his FAMAS assault rifle, a sergeant described as experienced with no history of behavioural or psychological problems, was detained following the incident.
An army source said three other soldiers were also detained.
The eyewitness who spoke to AFP, who asked not to be named, said there were seven or eight soldiers with guns taking part in the exercise, with one of them in the middle of the hundreds of spectators pretending to be a terrorist.
Immediately after the real shots were fired, "an official shouted out over the loudspeakers "Cease fire!", he said.
The use of the live rounds was "99.9 percent" likely to be "an unintentional fault," said Colonel Benoit Royal, the head of the French army's information service.
Military and civilian investigators immediately opened probes into the events at the Third Marine Parachute Regiment barracks.
"I cannot rule out anything because we don't know what might be going on in a man's head," Defence Minister Herve Morin told France Info radio.
He said the shooter had first fired a magazine of blanks and then loaded a fresh magazine but this time with live bullets.
"Why did he have it in his pocket?" asked Morin, who accompanied Sarkozy on his visit to the Carcassonne hospital.
He said an experienced soldier would not confuse blanks and real bullets, noting that the two munitions are packed into different-coloured magazines.
The senior official for the Aude region where Carcassonne is located, Bernard Lemaire, said that investigators believed the deadly ammunition was loaded by mistake.
"The question being asked is 'Did the soldier engage in a criminal act or not?'," Lemaire said. "For now, no one can answer that, but the theory being worked on is one of error."
The Third Marine Parachute Regiment based outside of Carcassonne numbers 1,200 troops.
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