Swiss special forces are set to guard the country’s embassy in Tripoli from the middle of January.
But details of soldier numbers and units will not be revealed for security reasons, said Adrian Sollberger, foreign ministry spokesman.
A few days before the planned deployment, even the speakers of the security and foreign committees were not fully informed.
Mission orders are set to be given in the next few days, Chantal Galladé, speaker of the House of Representatives security committee, told swissinfo.ch.
The threat level in Tripoli is currently relatively low, she said, adding that Switzerland was one of few countries to guard its embassy in this way.
Galladé said the composition of the Swiss detachment and the length of the operation would depend on the threat level: the smaller the threat, the smaller the presence of the DRA10 (Army Reconnaissance Detachment 10) special forces unit.
The foreign ministry describes the current situation in the Libyan capital as relatively stable, although armed militias pose a danger for foreigners.
After re-opening in October, the Swiss embassy in Tripoli has been protected by the controversial British security firm Aegis, which caused a sensation in Switzerland in 2010 when it moved its headquarters to Basel. It had been accused of taking part in acts of war.
The security committee of the Senate had demanded Aegis’s mercenaries be replaced by Swiss soldiers.
The government agreed to this request in December, although some politicians – above all those from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – fundamentally reject the deployment of armed Swiss soldiers abroad, citing neutrality.
At the end of December, the foreign ministry announced that in addition to the DRA10 it was also considering the use of a special detachment of the military police.
The DRA10 is trained to take part in operations abroad, to protect people, troops and facilities at heightened levels of risk, and also to rescue Swiss citizens stuck in crisis zones and escort them home.
This was the unit mentioned in connection with the springing of two Swiss hostages arrested in Tripoli in 2008 (see related story).
The embassy in Tripoli is the only Swiss representation abroad where Swiss soldiers are responsible for security.
All the others are sufficiently protected, according to the foreign ministry, which added that host countries are primarily responsible for security, although embassies can arrange additional security measures.
“Almost half of Swiss representations are protected by private, mostly local, firms,” said the ministry, which didn’t give concrete reasons for the different security measures in its embassies.
“Depending on the threat – criminality, risk of attack, prevention – the private firms take on jobs that range from complex to more simple, such as guarding a building overnight or on official holidays,” it said.
Algiers and Tehran
The foreign ministry confirmed that until now Swiss soldiers have only ever been deployed twice to protect Swiss representations abroad – and they’ve never needed to use their weapons.
In 1998, the embassy in Algiers was re-opened and guarded by professional soldiers after foreigners had been attacked by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
In 2006, members of DRA10 were sent to Tehran as part of a total of 30 soldiers to protect the embassy there. Parliament later admonished the government because it had not been informed of the operation in time.
According to military law, the government can only decide on operations on its own a maximum of three weeks in advance. In addition, the presidents of the security and foreign commissions of both parliamentary chambers must be informed, and later parliament too.
As for the Swiss embassy in Tripoli, the foreign ministry is assuming the operation will last longer. As a result, parliament will have the last word. The cabinet will submit a fromal request to parliament in the spring session.
Bilateral relations between Switzerland and Libya are set to normalise after more than three years.
The new Libyan government last Monday officially ended trade and economic sanctions against Switzerland which in turn had started lifting its embargo against Tripoli in September 2011.
According to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, Swiss business with Libya has suffered considerably over the past few years.
In 2008 Switzerland exported goods worth SFr282.3 million ($296 million) to Libya. In 2009 Swiss exports plummeted to SFr156.2 million, falling again to SFr110 million in 2010.
Swiss forces abroad
The Swiss Armed Forces have been involved in peace support missions since 1953.
Currently a total of 273 men and women from the rank of first private to major general are involved in peace missions in 15 countries on three continents. The vast majority are militia personnel.
Since August 1, 2007, Switzerland, best known for its militia army and neutrality, has had its first fully operational elite special forces unit, known as DRA10.
The detachment is an elite special forces unit belonging to the Reconnaissance and Grenadiers Division, alongside the grenadiers' and parachute regiments and a specialist air transport unit.
The DRA10's missions are to protect Swiss troops and citizens abroad who face increased security threats; to save and repatriate Swiss citizens caught up in crisis situations abroad and to gather key information concerning such operations.
Work started on building up the unit in 2003. There are currently 40 trained professional soldiers.
Training lasts 18 months for members of the DRA10, compared with 25 weeks for grenadiers and 43 weeks for members of the parachute regiment.
Cost of unit (91 members): SFr16million ($19.2 million) per year.
Switzerland has a large and well-trained army, but it hasn't gone to war since 1815. A discussion paper leaked last month suggested the country should reduce the size of its armed forces and concentrate on providing security inside Switzerland as well as assisting humanitarian operations abroad.
Currently, all Swiss men are required to undergo army training from the age of 19 and must perform regular reserve duty until at least the age of 30.
(Adapted from German by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch