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Appeal calls for action on child abductions

Some adults are there to help, and some to harm Ex-press

A hundred Swiss personalities have signed an open letter to the government demanding a faster system to track down abducted children.

This content was published on September 14, 2007 - 21:43

It calls for an "abduction alert" to be issued as soon as a child is reported missing. The signatories include champion skater Stéphane Lambiel, former ski champion Pirmin Zurbriggen and Alinghi-billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.

"Every magistrate, every policeman, knows that the fate of kidnapped children is decided in the first few hours after their abduction," says the appeal, published by the regional daily Le Nouvelliste.

It cites the experience of the United States, Canada and France where child disappearances receive instant publicity in the local media and on signboards in stations and along motorways, and says this has saved several lives.

The letter points out that the Swiss broadcasting law already stipulates that radio and television stations must carry urgent police messages when required.

The issue of child abduction hit the headlines in Switzerland six weeks ago when a five-year-old girl, Ylenia, disappeared in the east of the country. The Ylenia case was seen as a parallel to the disappearance of British girl Madeleine McCann in Portugal earlier this year.

Better coordination

Although this case focused minds in Switzerland, child abduction has always existed and the Nouvelliste appeal is not the first call for action.

The Fredi foundation, a private body set up in 1995 to search for missing children, launched a petition in May calling for better coordination between regional police forces when children are kidnapped.

The problem is that Switzerland's 26 cantons are responsible for their own police forces and defend their sovereignty "tooth and nail", André Burgy, chairman of the Fredi foundation, told swissinfo.

"Coordination at cantonal level is a bit of a myth," he said. "If we take the case of Ylenia Lenhard, there was coordination, but it was very, very slow."

When Ylenia was reported missing, it took at least six days before police forces beyond the specific area were asked to help in the search, he explained – and yet the Austrian border is only 15 minutes from where the child disappeared.

"[Coordination] has to be organised at federal level, for example by the Federal Police Office. The alert must be sounded as soon as the police have been informed," Burgy said.

Public's role

Another idea is to use text messages and pictures to alert the public as soon as a child has been reported missing. Experts consider this to be both technically and legally feasible.

However, Burgy doubts the benefits of such a scheme, fearing that kidnappers would take avoiding measures.

It is clear that all those calling for action, of whatever kind, want the government to do something as soon as possible.

"Let us act without delay. One life – just one life – saved is well worth a few minutes' of meeting time between the federal government, the relevant central offices and representatives of the cantons and the media," said the Nouvelliste appeal.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

According to police statistics 1,593 children were reported missing in Switzerland in 2006 and 1,109 in 2005.
Most are "runaways" and are soon found.

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Ylenia disappearance

Ylenia from Appenzell in northeastern Switzerland was last seen at a swimming pool on July 31.

That evening police found her backpack, cycling helmet and scooter beside a path in woods about 30 kilometres from the swimming pool.

On August 1, in the same forest, police found the body of a man who they said had shot himself in the head with a pistol.

Items belonging to Ylenia were found nearby. Further investigation revealed that she had at some point been in the dead man's van.

The police believe the same man may have been responsible for some unsolved cases of missing children from the 1980s.

Sales of kids' mobile phones enabling parents to keep track of their children's whereabouts have quadrupled since Ylenia's disappearance.

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