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By Ivan Alvarado
Los Angeles, Chile - Furious relatives of 45 soldiers thought to have frozen to death in the Chilean Andes have raged at military officers for leading dozens of ill-equipped teenage recruits into a blizzard.
Twenty-three bodies have been recovered from snow-bound Antuco volcano near the Argentine border.
An estimated 22 soldiers had yet to be found when teams, using snow ploughs and dogs, ended the fourth day of their search.
Army officers said seven bodies had been removed from the mountain late on Saturday.
"My son and his companions were abandoned by the officers," sobbed Gloria Bastias, whose son Jonathan is believed to have died in the tragedy that struck on Wednesday.
"They were coming down together in a group and people were falling. The officer just let 28 youngsters fall and went on to the shelter."
Most of the victims are teenagers from poor families. They were enlisted a month ago and their regiment went on a mountain training exercise without adequate equipment. They were struck by an early winter storm that blinded and disorientated the group.
No officers are among the missing or the dead.
"These are the heroes. The miserable villains are the officers who lived," Edmundo Vivanco, uncle of Guillermo Foncea, 18, shouted at a wake with 13 flag-draped coffins at an army base in this southern Chile city.
Army commander in chief Juan Cheyre also blamed the officers who led the soldiers on a march into danger instead of riding out the storm in a mountain shelter.
Chilean media said it was the worst peacetime military disaster the country had seen.
"I've come to send a big hug from millions of Chileans who share your pain," President Ricardo Lagos told families at a religious service at the base.
Earlier, he declared three days of national mourning.
All four candidates running in this year's presidential election also attended the service.
While some families mourned or waited in agony for news, others were overjoyed when they were reunited with 112 soldiers and officers evacuated by helicopter from a mountain shelter where they had been trapped.
"I asked God and the Virgin to save him. I never lost hope that he was alive," the mother of David Figueroa, 18, said as she and her son embraced and wept.
Of the missing, Cheyre said: "I'm convinced they are dead. Only by a miracle will we find any alive."
Cheyre fired the regiment's three top officers and ordered an internal military investigation and a civilian probe.
"There were negligence and imprudence."
The army had performed the exercise at this time of year for decades and had never been hit by a serious storm, Cheyre said.
The search began shortly after more than 400 members of the regiment were hit by the storm. Hundreds were able to hike out or reach mountain shelters, but low temperatures and limited visibility in falling snow hampered the search for the dozens who fell in the snow.
Bastias said she talked to a survivor who had seen her son fall and described a struggle in the disorienting snowstorm between recruits and officers, who insisted on pushing ahead instead of keeping the group together.
Only one company in the regiment had proper protective clothing.
"They need to put more responsible people in charge," a survivor's father told Chilean radio.
"I've lost all confidence in the army." - Reuters