CARCASSONNE, France (AFP) — France mounted an investigation Monday into why live rounds, rather than blanks, were used at a weekend visitors day display at a French military base, injuring 17 people, including a child in critical condition.
Fifteen civilians, including five children, and two soldiers were injured on Sunday when paratroopers demonstrated a hostage freeing exercise to visitors at their barracks outside the southwestern city of Carcassonne, regional officials said.
Four of the 17 were seriously injured, two critically, but doctors said early Monday that the condition of the worst injured had stabilised.
Hospitals in the southern cities and towns of Toulouse, Narbonne, Montpellier and Perpignan, as well as Carcassonne, were treating the injured.
One soldier, described as experienced with no history of behavioral or psychological problems, was detained following the incident.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to visit the injured in the hospitals in Carcassonne and Toulouse, his office said.
Military and civilian investigators immediately opened probes into the events at the Third Marine Parachute Regiment barracks, as Defence Minister Herve Morin dashed to Carcassonne to visit the injured.
"I cannot rule out anything because we don't know what might be going on in a man's head," said Morin on France Info radio on Monday, suggesting that the hyphothesis of foul play was still being considereed.
He said that "an experienced soldier" would not confuse blanks and real bullets, adding that the two munitions are packed into different-coloured magazines.
Earlier, Morin told journalists that safety measures had been respected and that the soldier who fired the live rounds had an exemplary record.
"Security regulations were respected ... use of blanks requires a distance of at least 10 metres (yards) from the public and the public was more than 10 metres away," he said.
"According to initial findings of the inquiry, the incident involved a soldier with a perfect record, who had participated in operations and had seven to eight years of experience. There is nothing that would make one think he had behavioral or psychological problems," he added.
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."
Sarkozy said he "shares with the families the pain caused by this tragedy. My first thoughts are with the victims. Everything will be put in place to care for them."
Gilles Hulard, a doctor from Carcassonne's rescue service said that condition of the injured appeared to be improving.
"The condition of patients injured the most seriously have stabilised, including that of a three-year-old child very seriously injured, who seems to be improving," said Hulard.
Most critically injured was a man with wounds to his chest, he said.
Hulard said the injured received first aid within three to four minutes of the shooting.
The Third Marine Parachute Regiment based outside of Carcassone numbers 1,200 troops.
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