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Freed for free

Freed Taliban hostages escape bill

The Bernese escaped hostages arrive back home in March (Keystone)

The Bernese escaped hostages arrive back home in March


Two Swiss travellers that were held hostage by the Taliban in Pakistan for eight months will not be asked to pick up the tab for their repatriation back home. They have been asked to do voluntary work instead.

The 32-year-old man and his partner, 29, both from Bern, managed to escape the clutches of their captors in a dramatic escape in March.

On returning home, the couple faced a SFr10,000 ($10,070) bill from the foreign ministry that had spent months negotiating with the Taliban and then arranged their safe passage back to Switzerland.

But the costs were waived after the pair agreed to undertake unspecified and unpaid work for the foreign ministry, according to the Sonntag newspaper – a report later confirmed by the authorities.

The Bernese couple were two of a growing number of Swiss nationals who get into trouble on foreign trips every year. Only a handful are kidnapped and held to ransom, but others have come unstuck in different ways after wandering into unsafe areas.

The costs to the state for helping distressed citizens abroad is rising in line with the numbers of people who enjoy travelling to exotic locations – sometimes with inadequate regard for their personal safety.

The state of affairs led to Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, calling in March for “the need for reflection on the responsibilities of each person regarding personal safety and the limits of state intervention”.

Strained budget

This was not the first time that concerns have been expressed by the authorities at the cost of extricating people in trouble from abroad.

In 2009, foreign ministry officials highlighted that its consulate protection budget was under strain following the release of a kidnapped Swiss citizen from Mali. The tourist was snatched after visiting a tribe near to the border with Niger.

In June of this year, the government announced the creation of a new travel advice platform called Itineris. Swiss travellers that register can now get even more details both before and during their journey.

More countries have been added to the advice line, that is also available via Twitter and shortly to become a mobile phone app, together with more up-to-date information on the changing security situation in various regions.

It is also hoped that Itineris will make the search for missing persons easier.

The Swiss government’s policy is not to pay ransoms, but the authorities spend hundreds of thousands of francs supporting Swiss travellers abroad each year.

Support for Swiss abroad

The political division VI of the foreign ministry was set up in 2009 following the Luxor attack in 1997 in which 62 people, including 36 Swiss tourists, died.

It incorporates the service for Swiss abroad, consular protection and, since June 1, 2011 the Division for Security Policy and Crisis Management as well as travel advice.

The security policy division has created an international monitoring and alert system as well as a crisis intervention unit consisting of 270 volunteers in five continents.

In terms of prevention, the crisis division publishes the foreign ministry’s Advice to Travellers on 157 countries on the internet and Twitter. It employs 12 people and has an annual budget of SFr400,000.

Set up on January 1, 2011, the foreign ministry hotline will be available 24 hours a day from May 1, 2012. It receives an average 2,000 calls and mails every month and is staffed by ten people.

In the event of a major crisis, a hotline staffed by 16 volunteers can be implemented.

(Source: foreign ministry)

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