Geneva police have arrested two men of Syrian origin who are suspected of making, transporting and hiding explosive material. The Swiss Attorney General has announced criminal proceedings against them related to participation in terror groups.
The attorney general's office announced the charges on Saturday following arrests on Friday evening that took place on the road from Thonon to Cologny in canton Geneva. The area has been on high alert since a tip-off from a foreign authority that an Islamic State cell was at large.
Police closed the section of road to all traffic for several hours following the arrests.
Geneva Prosecutor Olivier Jornot told the press on Saturday that the two people arrested said they had just arrived in Geneva on Friday and that he expects more arrests to be made in the coming days. He also said that the two men had been carrying Syrian passports and spoke no French. Jornot stressed that the fact that the vehicle they were driving contained traces of explosives did not necessarily mean they had transported such materials.
In a separate development, Swiss public television, RTS, reported that police had been tracking a Belgian van earlier this week that is believed to have briefly entered Switzerland on Tuesday.
Earlier on Friday, Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told journalists that police had been acting on information received from another country. She said there was no reason to believe that terrorists were planning a specific attack in Switzerland.
Threat level increased
Local police have graded the level of threat at three out of five on their alert scale since the federal authorities raised the alarm of “suspicious individuals likely to be located in Geneva or the region”. Several media reported that four suspected terrorists were being sought, and Jornot said on Saturday that those four individuals were believed to have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State terror group. He added that he could not say whether those four individuals are still in Switzerland.
Despite concerns about safety in the city, crowds still turned out to mark the Escalade festivities on Sunday, where there was a beefed up police presence.
"We came to show we aren't afraid," said one onlooker.
At the event, Pierre Maudet, Geneva’s head of the department of security and economic affairs, said it still was not clear what the potential target of the suspects had been.
Looking ahead, "December 14 to 24 will be a busy commercial period, with more people in the streets," he said. Vigilance would remain high "until we have more information allowing us to lower the threat level".
A security guard at the United Nations in Geneva told Reuters on Thursday that Swiss authorities were searching for “four guys” believed to be in the area. UN security guards were stationed with sub-machine guns at entry points for cars, a highly unusual measure at the sprawling complex.
Officials said on Saturday that the heightened security would continue at least for several days to come, Maudet told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper that police resources might be required from other cantons if the heightened security measures continue into the holidays. France also supplied 100 additional border guards to monitor crossings between France and Switzerland.
Authorities dismiss criticism
In another interview with the SonntagsZeitung newspaper on Sunday, Maudet defended the actions of Geneva law enforcement in the terror alerts. Responding to criticism in the media that local officials had acted alone, Maudet argued that federal officials had given the "green light" for local officials' actions and that communication had worked well.
And reacting to critics who said a photo of four suspects should not have ended up in the hands of the media, Maudet said that police officers needed the photo in their hunt for the suspects and that raised the risk that the photo would end up with the press.
Calls for terror finance data
On Sunday, terror financing expert Daniel Thelesklaf told the SonntagsZeitung that faster access to finance data is needed to prevent terrorist attacks.
"Following an attack like the one in Paris, we need to be able to compare data from many different countries," said Thelesklaf, a Swiss lawyer who is part of a Europe-wide task force on fighting terrorism. "This includes information about people, cars rented, or weapons purchased, in which finance information plays an important role."
Thelesklaf added that quick access to such information is also crucial to the success of his task force.
swissinfo.ch and agencies