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Switzerland calls for Lebanon ceasefire

Calmy-Rey says a prisoner exchange could help defuse the crisis

(Keystone)

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has called for a ceasefire between Israel and Islamic Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and insists on the application of humanitarian law.

The demand comes as Switzerland pursues evacuations of its nationals, with a chartered ship expected to dock in Beirut on Saturday to transport citizens still waiting to leave.

Calmy-Rey said in Bern on Thursday that a negotiated end to the conflict, which began nine days ago after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, was the only viable solution.

She added that while the soldiers should be returned, a prisoner exchange would be a more likely step towards defusing the crisis.

Switzerland, like many other countries, has admitted that Israel can conduct a military operation to recover its men held in southern Lebanon. But the government says the Israelis have gone way too far.

"The problem is that these operations are striking civilians, and destroying civilian infrastructures," Calmy-Rey told swissinfo. "These operations are disproportionate compared with their aims.

"Some governments have learnt nothing since the invasion of Iraq," she added.

For the Swiss, both sides in the conflict should only attack military targets, respecting humanitarian law set down in the Geneva Conventions of which Switzerland is the depositary state.

"We have reminded the belligerents a number of times that humanitarian law should be applied," said Paul Seger, head of the foreign ministry's international law directorate. "We are still neutral, since we are not taking sides with either party but defending the law."

Humanitarian corridor

Besides a ceasefire, the foreign minister also called for the creation of humanitarian corridors. One would be by sea, stretching from Beirut to Cyprus, while the other would connect the Lebanese capital to the south of the country.

The humanitarian situation is particularly difficult at the moment in Lebanon. According to Swiss officials, there are 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), including 40,000 in Beirut alone.

For Toni Frisch, the top humanitarian official at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), these IDPs represent the biggest challenge in Lebanon.

"The main problem at the moment is that we have very limited access to these people," he told swissinfo. "We are trying to provide the Lebanese government with assistance for medical care and shelter."

People, who have been forced to leave everything behind as they flee the conflict zones, face a lack of sanitation, food and shelter.

The biggest concern is southern Lebanon, virtually under siege and where the fighting between Hezbollah and Israelis has been the fiercest.

"Access is practically impossible," said Frisch. "There are humanitarian organisations that are present, but they can't operate either [because of the fighting]."

In other parts of the country, the Swiss say they can help the Lebanese and collaborations with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations are being set up.

Evacuation

While humanitarian needs are being evaluated and addressed by a special team, the main Swiss priority is getting its nationals out of Lebanon. According to Calmy-Rey, 500 Swiss citizens have managed to leave the country either by sea or by road since the weekend.

One hundred people travelled overland to neighbouring Syria on Thursday.

The foreign ministry said that another 500 are expected to want to leave, although the number could still vary substantially. The Swiss have chartered a ship to evacuate their nationals on Saturday from Beirut, giving people time to reach the Lebanese capital.

Calmy-Rey said though that there were up to 850 places available on board the vessel, so other foreign citizens will be able to make the journey as well.

swissinfo, Scott Capper

In brief

The fighting - the worst since Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 – was triggered after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid last week.

The Islamic militant movement is part of the Lebanese government and is backed by Syria and Iran.

The fighting has killed at least 300 people in Lebanon and 29 in Israel.

Estimates put the number of Internally Displaced Persons as high as 500,000.

Nearly 25,000 foreigners are believed to have been evacuated from Lebanon by Thursday, including 500 Swiss.

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Key facts

The Swiss foreign ministry says there are 838 Swiss nationals registered as resident in Lebanon, of which 713 hold dual nationality.
Family members can contact the foreign ministry hotline for further information on +41 31 325 33 33 from 8am to 9pm.

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