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Changing of the Swiss guard in Kosovo

Switzerland's first armed peacekeepers officially took up duty this week in Kosovo.

swissinfo went with the Swisscoy recruits as they travelled by military-chartered jet to the regional capital, Pristina.

The latest contingent of Swiss troops to arrive in Kosovo is the first in more than two centuries to carry weapons while on active service abroad.

Each member of the 200-strong battalion lining up on the tarmac at the military aerodrome in Payerne was carrying an army-issue assault rifle - purely for protection and self-defence purposes, and not for use in military combat.

Lieutenant Colonel Sylvain Curtenaz is commander of the latest contingent - the seventh of its kind since Switzerland began to send peacekeepers to the region in the autumn of 1999.

As the plane carrying the contingent to Kosovo taxied towards the runway and prepared to take off in thick, early morning fog for the two-hour flight to Pristina, Curtenaz told swissinfo their arrival in the Balkan province two hours later would represent a "very important milestone".

"This is the first time in about 200 years that a fully armed Swiss unit has been deployed abroad," said Curtenaz.

"So this is a major responsibility for all of us, because it's very easy for a soldier to press on a trigger... and the fine art during our mission will be to not press that trigger," he added.

Prior to departure, the contingent spent six weeks preparing for the mission, as well as learning how to handle pistols and rifles.

Training with weapons

"Part of the training has been focused on how to handle the weapon [each member of the contingent will be carrying] and this was done through acting out scenarios where the guys would use dialogue and conflict management skills to avoid the use of weapons," explained Curtenaz.

As if to prove their commander right, 200 rifles were carefully stowed away by each member of the battalion in overhead luggage lockers inside the aircraft cabin.

Flavio Bordonali, a 22-year-old corporal from Chur, said the weapons would only be used on active service as a last resort.

"This is a quiet but dangerous area," he said, peering out of the aircraft window towards the fields and isolated villages below.

"We are not taking the weapons to shoot, but for our own security, and if you look around, none of us is trying to be Rambo, we have people who come from office jobs, and we are not flying here only because of the weapons."

Handover ceremony

Minutes after the plane touched down in Pristina, the new contingent officially took over from the outgoing battalion at a brief but formal ceremony close to the military air base.

Senior United States and German military officials stationed in Kosovo looked on as the Swiss flag was handed over and Switzerland's newest overseas commander ushered in a new era in Swiss peacekeeping.

"This is the first time in modern Swiss history that such an armed unit is deployed outside our national borders," Curtenaz told his audience.

"Of course Swiss peacekeepers have been deployed before, but never armed and never in such a significant number... our engagement therefore takes on a new meaning, and we are proud to be the first unit to have such an honour and responsibility," he continued, to the sound of applause and the musical swell of a military band.

The troops will be joined shortly by a 20-strong infantry platoon with five machine-gun carrying Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) as well as a Super Puma helicopter at its disposal.

According to Curtenaz, the helicopter will be used to help fight the many forest fires in summer time.

"Often there are not enough firefighters on the ground, and we hope that with this we'll be able to make a difference," he said.

Heading home

The commander of the sixth contingent - the last unit of Swiss soldiers to serve without the use of arms - handed over the Swiss flag to his successor, before leading his troops to the waiting jet for the return journey home.

Defence ministry staff present at the handover ceremony were at pains to make it clear that the carrying of weapons by Swisscoy volunteers would not lead to a radical overhaul of the role played by Swiss peacekeepers in Kosovo.

"The basic mission, which is largely logistical, will not change. We will still be doing things like producing and transporting drinking water and carrying out engineering work," said Curtenaz.

"The major difference is that we will be able to guarantee our own security, there will no longer be any need to ask other troops from other nations to protect us, and we'll be able to divide up the duty of guarding the camp we share with the Austrians."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh in Pristina

Key facts

The first armed Swiss peacekeepers officially took up duty at a ceremony in Kosovo on Thursday.
Each member of the 200-strong contingent - the seventh of its kind to serve in the region - is equipped with an assault rifle for personal defence purposes.
The latest contingent has also been joined by an infantry platoon equipped with five Armoured Personnel Carriers and a Super Puma helicopter.



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