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Six soldiers die in Jungfrau avalanche

The six who died were taking part in a military exercise Keystone

An avalanche in the Swiss Alps has killed six young members of the armed forces. Eight others were rescued unharmed.

This content was published on July 12, 2007 - 15:20

The accident happened at 10am local time on Thursday morning as the troops were taking part in an exercise on the southwest flank of the Jungfrau peak in the Bernese Oberland region.

The army's deputy commander Fred Heer said that the soldiers were part of a 14-strong patrol.

The other eight soldiers were rescued by helicopter and are unharmed, he added. Heer said the victims were from the French-speaking part of the country.

The climbers were heading up the 4,158-metre mountain, roped together in two groups of three. They had reached a height of 3,800 metres when fresh snow dislodged, sending them plummeting into the valley below.

The six victims - who were from the Mountain Specialists Division of the militia army - were recruits on a routine training exercise.

"The people were excellently equipped for such a mountain tour and had been well trained over the last 17 weeks of their school," army spokeswoman Kirsten Hammerich told Swiss television.

She said the bodies had been taken to the nearby resort of Lauterbrunnen. A team of psychologists were counselling the other members of the army unit.

Defence Minister Samuel Schmid expressed in the capital Bern his condolences to the victims' families and friends, adding that the men had died "serving their country."

Schmid said that an investigation was already underway to determine whether the accident was due to bad luck or human error.

Heavy snowfalls

The head of a local mountain guide centre told swissinfo it had snowed for the past few days and there was 40-60cm of new snow.

"This morning, I decided [together with my guests] not to go up the Jungfrau because of the snow conditions. Naturally, one has to take into account how experienced the climbers are," said Johann Kaufmann, head of mountain sports in Grindelwald.

According to the army, it was the professional guides accompanying the patrol who had the final say on whether it was safe enough to go ahead with the climb.

Ueli Steck, one of Switzerland's most accomplished climbers, told swissinfo that the heavy snowfall in the Alps coupled with warmer temperatures would have given rise to a "totally unstable snow structure".

"So much snow has been falling during the week and this has been the first day of good weather. The possibility of an avalanche would be high and this kind of thing can happen," said Steck, who set a new speed record on the infamous Eiger North Face in February.

Thomas Stucki of Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos told swissinfo though that the avalanche risk is usually low in summer, even if fresh snow is common at that altitude.

Steck, who lives in the nearby town of Interlaken, said the southwest flank of the Jungfrau was the normal route up the peak. He described it as an easy day climb that could be accomplished by beginners.

"You get a lot of traffic up there. It is one of the most standard routes in the Bernese Oberland," he said.

"It is not known for being a particular hotspot for avalanches, but accidents can happen at any time, on any route."

The accident is one of the worst in the Swiss mountains in recent years.

swissinfo with agencies

Avalanches in Switzerland

Avalanche accidents such as the one on Thursday are rare in July, according to the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos.

The latest accident is the worst since February 1999 when 12 people were killed in a side valley of the Val D'Hérens in canton Valais.

Since the winter of 1997/1998 a total of 225 people have been killed in avalanches on Swiss mountains.

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Major army accidents

The Jungfrau tragedy is the most serious military accident since 1992 when an explosion at a munitions depot at the Susten Pass also killed six soldiers.

October 21, 2001: A military helicopter crashed above Montana in canton Valais, killing all four occupants.

May 25, 2001: A military helicopter crashed after hitting a cable at Delémont in canton Jura, killing the pilot and three border guards.

November 12, 1997: A Pilatus Porter on a training exercise crashed in the Simme Valley, killing the pilot and four passengers. The accident was put down to bad weather.

November 2, 1992: Six people were killed when 400 tonnes of munitions exploded in the Steingletscher underground depot on the Bernese side of the Susten Pass. The cause of the accident was never determined.

The worst avalanche last century killed 30 people, including 19 military personnel at Reckingen in canton Valais, on February 24, 1970.

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