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President defends plans to free Libya hostages

Doris Leuthard strongly condemned leaks to the media concerning plans to liberate hostages

(Keystone)

President Doris Leuthard has said the Swiss authorities acted correctly in considering plans for a military operation to free two Swiss hostages detained in Libya.

But questions remain unanswered concerning which cabinet ministers knew what and when.

Speaking at a news conference to quash rumours circulating about the planned rescue mission, Leuthard said the foreign and defence ministries had been commissioned to report on the planned mission.

The cabinet discussed the plans on March 22 and concluded that it was “right that the agencies responsible envisaged such action while hostages had been taken”. But the plans were never acted upon.

The cabinet also decided that in the future the departments involved should be informed of such action at an early stage.

The cabinet strongly condemned leaks to the media on the issue. Details about the mission had been classified as secret and so the leaks were a criminal offence, Leuthard said.

Several scenarios involving "exfiltration" have been reported in Swiss newspapers, but none has been confirmed by the government.

They centred on freeing Swiss nationals Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani. The pair were arrested in Tripoli in July 2008, days after the arrest in Geneva of Hannibal Gaddafi, a son of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, and his wife, on charges of abusing their staff.

Tripoli suspended visas for Swiss citizens, withdrew funds from Swiss banks, stopped oil shipments, reduced flights to Switzerland and detained Hamdani and Göldi on immigration charges.

Hamdani was released in February this year, but Göldi had to serve a four-month prison sentence, only returning to Switzerland last week.

“Total disaster”

"It appears that the operation was imminent," Christian Democrat parliamentarian Jakob Büchler, head of the defence committee of the House of Representatives, told the Swiss News Agency.

"This could have ended in a total disaster."

Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger, citing people familiar with the plans, reported that Swiss intelligence agents were twice close to conducting a rescue operation that never took place. Officials even considered flying the men out with a small plane or hiring a British security company to free them, the newspaper reported.

Leuthard said the cabinet was informed of the plans on February 3 and requested that the foreign and defence ministries provide a full report to the government.

She added that the report was intended to clarify “who knew about the plans, to what extent and who gave the order to carry out or abandon them”.

Leuthard provided no details of the plans on Monday, saying they concerned “matters of highest secrecy”, and declined to take questions after reading a brief statement.

Unanswered questions

Focus now turns to what exactly Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz knew and when.

In August 2009, Merz, then incumbent of Switzerland’s rotating presidency, flew to Tripoli reportedly without telling any of his cabinet colleagues and apologised for the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi.

Did he know about the exfiltration plans, or did Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey and Defence Minister Ueli Maurer let him go while keeping him in the dark?

“If a mission order was in fact given without being decided by the entire cabinet, that’s almost a state crisis,” said Albert Stahel from the Institute for Strategic Studies in Zurich.

Another key question, according to Green Party parliamentarian Jo Lang, would be whether the plan merely involved Swiss intelligence agents or also included the army's elite Reconnaissance Detachment 10, which would be “serious”.

Sebastian Hueber, a spokesman for the defence ministry, declined to say whether the elite unit was part of the rescue plan or had ever taken part in an operation abroad.

Communication problems

Lang added that Leuthard’s statement on Monday also showed that there were serious communication problems in the cabinet, with some ministers apparently being out of the loop.

Switzerland has a long-standing tradition of neutrality and any discussion of military operations is a sensitive topic in a country that has managed to stay out of Europe's many wars for almost 200 years.

A parliamentary panel will now examine the rescue plans as part of a wider probe into the government's handling of the Gaddafi affair.

swissinfo.ch and agencies

Time Line

July 15, 2008: Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife are arrested and charged with abusing their staff. They are released on bail and leave Switzerland. The servants are later compensated and charges withdrawn.

July: Swiss nationals Max Göldi and Rachid Hamdani are arrested as part of several anti-Swiss measures

January 2009: A diplomatic delegation travels to Tripoli.

May: Swiss foreign minister visits Libya.

June: Libya withdraws most assets from Swiss bank accounts.

August: The Swiss president apologises in Tripoli for the arrest.

October: A 60-day limit for normalising relations passes.

November: Swiss ministers say they will pursue visa restrictions for Libyans. On November 30 Göldi and Hamdani sentenced to 16 months in prison and fined for visa violations.

January 2010: Their terms are overturned and cut.

February 14: A Libyan newspaper reports Switzerland has drawn up a blacklist of 188 top Libyans.

February 15: Libya stops issuing visas to citizens of nations in the Schengen zone.

February 22: Göldi ordered to report to prison. Hamdani obtains an exit visa.

March 3: Libya declares a trade and economic embargo of Switzerland.

March 27: Libya lifts its visa ban on Schengen citizens after EU president Spain says the visa blacklist against 188Libyans has been scrapped.

April 13: A Geneva court backs a claim by Hannibal Gaddafi that the publication of leaked police photos infringed his privacy, but rejects his claim for SFr100,000 ($95,000) in damages.

June 10: Göldi is released from jail and moves to a Tripoli hotel.

June 12: Swiss and Spanish foreign ministers travel to Tripoli.

June 14: Göldi arrives back in Switzerland.

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