A SOLDIER fired real bullets, instead of blanks, into a crowd at a military demonstration yesterday, wounding 16 people, including four children.
Four of the wounded were said to be in serious condition last night, including a three-year-old child.
Bernard Lemaire, the chief of the regional administration in L'Aude, confirmed the incident and said 15 of the injured were civilians.
Reports from the scene described how the hostage scenario had been acted out five times before a crowd at the barracks. On the sixth take, real bullets began flying through the air, and onlookers fell to the ground.
A Defence Ministry official said the incident occurred during a demonstration of hostage-freeing techniques by the Third Marine Parachute Regiment at the Laperrine military barracks in the town of Carcassonne, in the south-west of France.
The official said investigators will look into why real bullets were used.
Mr Lemaire said the soldier who fired the gun was immediately detained, but stressed this did not mean that the possibility of an accident had been ruled out.
He said the injuries were likely an accident, but that it could have been a "criminal act". He added 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?'," Mr Lemaire said.
"For now, no-one can answer that, but the theory being worked on is one of error."
No information was immediately available about what kind of weapon was used.
In a statement, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, expressed his "horror and profound emotion" at the incident at the base which houses the 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment.
He was awaiting the results of an inquiry to draw "exemplary" consequences as soon as possible.
The injured were taken to nearby hospitals, with the most seriously wounded taken to Toulouse.