By Saturday, 23 bodies had been recovered from the snow-bound Antuco volcano near the Argentine border, and an estimated 22 soldiers were still missing when rescuers with snow ploughs and dogs ended their fourth day of searching.

Army officials said they had taken seven bodies off the mountain late on Saturday.

Incompetence

Most of the victims are teenage recruits from poor families, who enlisted just a month ago and whose regiment went on a mountain training exercise without the necessary equipment to cope with an unexpected early-winter storm that blinded and disoriented the group.

"These are the heroes. The miserable villains are the officers that lived," Edmundo Vivanco, uncle of 18-year-old Guillermo Foncea, said at a wake with 13 flag-draped coffins at an army base in the city in southern Chile.

President Lagos (L) has declared
three days of national mourning

Army Commander-in-Chief Juan Cheyre blamed the officers who led the soldiers on a march into danger instead of riding out the storm in a mountain shelter. There were no officers among the missing or the dead.

Local media said it was the worst peacetime military disaster in Chile.

"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.

Survivors found

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'm convinced they are dead. Only by a miracle will we find any alive"

Juan Cheyre,
Army Commander-in-Chief

"I asked God and the Virgin to save him. I never lost hope that he was alive," the mother of 18-year-old David Figueroa said as she and her son cried and embraced.

"I'm convinced they are dead. Only by a miracle will we find any alive," Cheyre said of those still missing.

Cheyre has dismissed the regiment's three top officers and ordered an internal military investigation as well as a civilian one.

"There was negligence and imprudence," Cheyre said. The army has performed the exercise at this time of year for decades and never been hit by a big storm, he said.

Badly equipped

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 dozens who fell.

Only one company in the regiment had proper protective clothing, something that has enraged the soldiers' families. 

"They need to put more responsible people in charge. I've lost all confidence in the army," one survivor's father told Chilean radio.