A dozen army officers in foreign uniforms huddled together in an army barracks in the Swiss capital, Bern.This content was published on December 8, 2006 - 14:13
What appears to be a military plot is in fact a training course organised by Switzerland, as part of its contribution to Nato's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.
The scene is confusing for an observer: in the basement of a Swiss barracks, an improvised office has been set up.
Some of the officers man the phones, while others type away busily. A young woman claiming to be a journalist enters the room and demands answers to her questions. The language being spoken is English - but the accents are distinctly foreign.
"Stress levels are high but won't get better any time soon," promises Beat Krättli, the mastermind behind the specially written scenario being acted out in front of me.
There are reports of unrest and rebel groups launching attacks in a fictitious African country. Cholera has apparently broken out and thousands of people are fleeing, while the United Nations is trying to do its best to keep the situation under control.
And just as the officers think they are getting on top of things, another problem arises.
"We want to be as close to reality as possible. In a few moments we will let the computers crash, for instance," says the trainer.
Krättli and his Swiss team have put together a three-day media exercise for information officers from countries including Germany, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Kazakhstan.
The media exercise is just one of more than a dozen courses offered by Switzerland to other PfP member countries every year. They also include programmes on border control, mountain search and rescue and international humanitarian law.
"Partnership for Peace is a very effective opportunity for us to cooperate in an international security organisation," says Igor Perrig, who heads the PfP unit of the Swiss armed forces.
Switzerland joined the programme ten years ago but has remained outside Nato, the military alliance of Europe and North America.
"It is cooperation according to Swiss interests under strict conditions. There is no question of integrating into Nato - we are a neutral country," explains Perrig, adding that Switzerland benefits from the exchange of military know-how.
Every year about 150 Swiss officers attend courses at the Nato school in Oberammergau, Bavaria. And several officers also take part in PfP training exercises on peace support operations ahead of their participation as military personnel on international missions.
Perrig says it took three years of groundwork for Switzerland to finally join the PfP in 1996 – which proved to be a special window of opportunity for the country's security policy.
"Switzerland not only joined PfP, but it also sent a unit of unarmed officers to Bosnia-Herzegovina to support the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. What's more, Switzerland also held the presidency of the world's largest regional security organsation that same year."
After the September 11 attacks against the United States, Nato has assumed a global role in combating terrorism. Switzerland's contribution has been to foster dialogue and promote democratic values with countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, Perrig said.
But the federal authorities have no plans to hold a big party to mark the tenth anniversary of PfP membership.
"The most convincing way of celebrating is not to do anything because it has become part of normality," says Christian Catrina, senior civil servant at the defence ministry.
And then there are those who see no grounds for celebration. The rightwing Swiss People's Party has warned that Swiss membership of the PfP is jeopardising the country's traditional neutrality.
swissinfo, Urs Geiser
Three of the four main political parties consider Swiss participation in the PfP as a useful instrument for contacts and cooperation, but none of them is pursuing Nato membership.
But the rightwing Swiss People's Party has warned against undermining traditional Swiss neutrality in line with its fundamental opposition to any international involvement for the country.
The Nato PfP programme was never put to a nationwide vote.
In 1994 the electorate threw out a plan to contribute Swiss peacekeepers to UN and OSCE missions. In 2001 a proposal for closer international military cooperation won approval, including joint training exercises.
Nato's Partnership for Peace Programme (PfP) was launched in 1994.
Neutral Switzerland joined PfP in December 1996 and is one of 46 participating countries.
More than 1,000 Swiss officers and non-commissioning officers (NCOs), both professionals and members of the militia army, have taken part in PfP courses over the past ten years.
Swiss troops/military personnel abroad
In total there are about 250 peacekeepers and military personnel on international missions abroad.
There are currently about 220 Swiss peacekeepers in Kosovo serving under Austrian command in the Nato-led force.
The others include observers and experts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and at the border between North and South Korea.
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