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EU expects Swiss troops for anti-pirate force

(Keystone)

Switzerland is facing calls by the European Union to send soldiers for an armed mission to escort ships through pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia.

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said the government would consider the request shortly. Parliament will have the final say on the issue.

On Wednesday the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, expressed Brussels' interest in Swiss elite soldiers.

"Swiss troops would be very welcome in operation Atalanta," Solana said after a meeting with Calmy-Rey in Brussels.

He made it clear that a financial contribution by Switzerland was out of the question.

"Frankly speaking such an option is not a priority," Solana said diplomatically.

He added that it was up to Switzerland to decide what form of cooperation it provides.

Solana said he hoped the government would give the green light, but declined to say whether the EU preferred personnel or helicopters.

The Swiss government has discussed participation in a EU anti-piracy mission several times over the past few weeks, but put off a decision amid confusion over the conditions set by Brussels.

Solidarity

Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey promised the cabinet would give a response soon. She underlined the needs of the EU for "human resources both for the military mission as well as for legal questions".

Law experts will have to advise the EU on issues including the status of captured pirates.

Calmy-Rey reiterated that Swiss participation in the EU operation was key for Switzerland's commercial vessels to be given protection.

"Switzerland has no navy. Only by showing solidarity with the EU will we be able to shield our ships from attacks," she told journalists.

Financial support alone would not be enough for Swiss vessels to secure the same level of protection from the European naval force as ships from the United Nations and the EU receive, according to Calmy-Rey.

Observers say Wednesday's meeting with Solana could pave the way for the cabinet to agree to Swiss troops joining operation Atalanta.

For and against

The new Swiss defence minister, Ueli Maurer, initially came out against the deployment of Swiss troops. However, he later said Switzerland would send elite troops if the government and parliament agreed to join international efforts to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The possible participation of up to 30 Swiss elite troops – trained for recovery and intelligence missions abroad – led to a broad debate over the past two months.

Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin as well as Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey publically supported the proposal, while rightwing politicians as well as pacifists and the Greens oppose such moves.

Landlocked Switzerland has a fleet of 35 privately operated tankers and container ships. In December one vessel was pursued by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Around 30 per cent of Swiss-bound goods pass through the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

swissinfo, Simon Thönen and Urs Geiser

In brief

Swiss participation in operation Atalanta could include sending troops on military vessels or cargo ships.

Other options are the deployment of experts to the operation headquarters in Northwood, Britain, or to bases in the Gulf region.

Switzerland has a fleet of 35 privately owned tankers and container ships.

Last year parliament approved a five-year, SFr500 million support package for the country's merchant navy operators.

Officially based in Basel's Rhine port, the navy was set up to ensure that goods would still enter Switzerland in the event of a crisis.

end of infobox

Operation Atalanta

The first EU naval operation was launched in December to try and protect shipping around the Gulf of Aden.

The newly formed Atalanta mission is trying to quell attacks using up to six frigates and three military patrol aircraft from Britain, France, Germany and Greece.

The route through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden is a major sea lane between Europe and Asia.

The UN also delivers food to the starving population in Somalia as part of international aid programmes.

The mandate of the multinational force, led by Britain, is limited to 12 months.

end of infobox
(swissinfo.ch)


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