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Swiss keep tabs on "holidaying" foreign troops

British Royal Marines have been visiting Switzerland since the late 1970s to conduct high-altitude exercises

(Keystone)

The Defence Ministry plans tighter control of foreign troops on Swiss soil after a row over the activities of elite British soldiers in the Alps.

British Royal Marines have been coming to the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Bernese Oberland - ostensibly as tourists - since the late 1970s to conduct high-altitude exercises, albeit out of uniform and unarmed.

They have been doing so apparently without the knowledge of the Swiss defence minister and the army chief of staff.

Appearing before the parliament's defence committee, the current defence minister, Samuel Schmid, said the activities of foreign troops in Switzerland should be regulated by a formal agreement.

No authorisation needed

Switzerland has such an accord with Belgium, but not with Britain, the United States and the Netherlands, whose troops all engage in training in the Swiss Alps.

The Dutch and Americans have to receive authorisation, since they make use of Swiss army facilities, but the British marines do not, as they only engage in "sporting activities" such as mountaineering, bivouacking, hiking and mountain-biking.

"They do sport like any other tourist, and they have no link to the Swiss army. That's perhaps why we have never been specifically informed that the British have been coming here for many years," the Defence Ministry spokesman, Oswald Sigg, told swissinfo.

But many have mocked the suggestion that these elite troops are on holiday. The training camp even has a codename: Operation Ice Flip.

Storm in a teacup

Reports of the presence of the marines have inevitably raised concerns about an erosion of Swiss neutrality. How can a neutral country, it is suggested, allow a foreign army to train on its soil, especially when that army is currently engaged in a conflict?

Josef Leu, chairman of the parliamentary defence committee described the affair as a "storm in a teacup". He said the British troops had never represented a threat to security.

But there is no doubt that the skills perfected in the Bernese Oberland will stand the British troops in good stead for when they are hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban members in the mountains of Afghanistan.

"When soldiers engage in any sport, it will be useful in their military activities," Sigg says. "But you can't stop them doing sport. It would be going too far to say that they are training here for Afghanistan."

No treaties broken

A former Royal Marines commander has been quoted as saying that the Swiss training camp was the final stage of a nine-month mountain warfare training programme, and was applied directly to conflict situations.

Swiss television reports have suggested that the number of soldiers involved in the training camp this year had risen to 550, from its usual 50. But the British Embassy in Bern informed swissinfo that this was in fact the total number of British troops engaged in exercises in the whole of Switzerland.

For Ice Flip in Lauterbrunnen is by no means the only, nor the biggest, such operation. That distinction goes to Operation White Knight in Verbier.

Swiss army sources told swissinfo that the affair had been blown out of proportion. No rules or treaties had been breached, and the soldiers could effectively be regarded as civilians on an adventure holiday.

That is a view shared by Patrick Bangham, military attaché at the British Embassy, who described the manoeuvres as a kind of "civilian adventure training".

"Obviously it has a military application. They are getting fit and honing their high-altitude skills," he told swissinfo. "But if they were civilians doing the same thing, they would be called sportsmen."

by Roy Probert


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