Swiss troops could join an armed mission to escort ships through Somali pirate-infested waters in the Gulf of Aden, the foreign ministry has said.
The cabinet will consider a proposal in early 2009 for special troops to join the European Atalanta naval operation designed to deter pirates in the region.
Switzerland cannot protect commercial ships travelling through the area on its own, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said on Tuesday.
By taking part in the mission Swiss vessels would have added support from European Union forces.
"Other armies will only act on our behalf if Switzerland takes part in the operation," she noted.
The mission is expected to be in force within the next three months.
The proposal to send troops out to protect ships has been headed by the foreign ministry in consultation with the defence ministry.
The debate follows a request by a ship owner who asked for government protection after pirates pursued a Swiss vessel last week. There was no confrontation at that time.
Around 30 per cent of Swiss-bound goods pass through the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. Pirates have made an estimated $30 million (SFr32 million) hijacking ships in the area for ransom this year, seizing more than 40 vessels off Somalia's 3,000-kilometre coastline.
Two ships flying Swiss flags were scheduled to brave the waters off Somalia this week, but one of them, a tanker belonging to Mega Chemicals in canton Thurgau, has opted to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead.
The Swiss Maritime Navigation Office (SMNO), which supervises maritime navigation under the Swiss flag, has backed the idea of extra protection for vessels.
"Prevention is vital. Experience has shown that vessels guarded by army soldiers, for example those from France and Israel, have not yet been attacked," Reto Dürler, the head of the Basel-based SMNO, told swissinfo.
"The pirates are interested in boarding a vessel easily and without any big problems, especially without shooting the crew, because they want to ask for a large ransom, they want money and for that they need the infrastructure of the vessel to remain intact."
Dürler added that it would be up to individual ship owners and managers to request military protection if the initiative went ahead
Switzerland's 35 privately operated tankers and container ships are operated by six Swiss shipping companies.
Calmy-Rey on Tuesday described the Swiss cabinet as being favourable to military intervention on Swiss ships.
But the legal, financial and practical consequences of sending Swiss troops out must first be studied before the cabinet and parliament decide on the proposal.
Since the initiative was announced by President Pascal Couchepin on Sunday it has been attacked by parliamentarians from the rightwing Swiss People's Party as well as the Greens.
Military expert Albert Stahel, a professor at Zurich University, has called the plan a "crackpot idea". He says the government has to consider more serious action, such as placing the Swiss fleet under the flag of a naval power to be protected by it.
A decision on the proposal is not expected before the cabinet's next meeting on January 14.
swissinfo, Jessica Dacey
The waters off the Somali coast are the most dangerous in the world, accounting for a third of the world's pirate attacks. The pirates run sophisticated operations using equipment such as satellite phones and GPS. They are also armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s.
The pirates are known to receive tip-offs from contacts at ports in the Gulf of Aden. They use speedboats with very powerful outboard motors to approach their targets. The pirates have also on occasion fired at the ships to scare them into stopping, so it is easier for them to board the vessel.
The pirates then sail the hijacked ship to the Somali town, Eyl, a pirate hub. There, pirates board the ship and normally take the hostages to shore, where they are usually well looked after until a ransom is paid.
SWISS MERCHANT NAVY
Despite being landlocked, Switzerland has one of the most modern merchant fleets in the world, comprising 35 privately operated tankers and container ships that fly the Swiss flag in international waters.
In March 2008 the Swiss parliament approved a five-year, SFr500 million support package for the country's merchant navy operators. Parliament had already accepted a ten-year funding mechanism totalling SFr600 million in 2002.
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.
In 2002 Swiss sailors accounted for about 3% of all sailors worldwide.
The first EU naval operation was launched in December to try and protect shipping around the Gulf of Aden. The newly formed Atalanta mission will try to quell attacks using up to six frigates and three military patrol aircraft from the UK, France and Greece.end of infobox