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Switzerland prepares for the worst

Swiss authorities remain tight-lipped about the security measures being undertaken in Iraq Keystone

The Swiss authorities have drawn up secret contingency plans to protect citizens both at home and abroad in the event of war in Iraq.

This content was published on February 14, 2003 - 19:20

Although the government is still hoping for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, officials are especially anxious to ensure the safety of those living in Middle East countries.

"We don't want to be fatalistic and still hope that a war in Iraq can be avoided," Christoph Geiser from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDA) told swissinfo.

"However, we are preparing a contingency plan for all eventualities," added Geiser, who is charge of the Iraq dossier at the SDA, which has been running a mission in Baghdad since 1993.

The government has set up a conflict management group to respond to the crisis, with the foreign, defence and justice ministries closely involved at all levels.

However, the authorities remain tight-lipped about the security measures being undertaken, including precautions to prevent terrorist attacks against targets in Switzerland.

"We are not making any statements because we don't want our plans to be compromised," said Danièle Bersier, a Justice Ministry spokesman.

"We can only say that security measures were increased after September 11, 2001, and it was done in conjunction with the cantons," she added.

Iraq

As for Iraq, ambassador Peter Sutter, who is in charge of the Swiss abroad department in the foreign ministry, says the Swiss community there - numbering 20 - is mainly made up of officials.

He says there are two officials at the Swiss liaison office in Baghdad, as well as a number of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and SDA representatives in the country.

The ICRC representatives have already said they will stay on in the country as long as they can.

"Then, there are also a very small number of people with dual Swiss-Iraqi citizenship, mostly Swiss women who have married Iraqis," Sutter told swissinfo.

The crisis management unit at the Swiss abroad department is trying to find out who has remained in Iraq and how they can be contacted.

Officials at the foreign ministry are also considering how they can support the Swiss community - with advice or even action, if it becomes necessary.

Security

But Sutter insists that the Swiss abroad are first and foremost under the care of their country of residence. For this reason, his staff can only issue recommendations.

"To be honest, we can't really protect our citizens," admitted Sutter.

Several scenarios have been devised, but in the event of war, the Swiss foreign ministry only has jurisdiction over its employees in Baghdad.

If needs be they could be evacuated - as was the case during the Gulf War in 1991. At that time, Switzerland maintained contact with the Iraqi authorities through the Swiss embassy in Jordan.

The Swiss authorities say they do not consider that the situation is risky enough in Iraq's neighbouring countries to recommend that people leave. According to Sutter, there are only very small Swiss colonies in most of these countries.

Israel

But there are far more - an estimated 8,000 citizens of dual nationality and a further 2,300 Swiss - living in Israel. While the country is considered a risk in case of war, the Swiss authorities have also issued no guidelines.

"We assume people read the papers. And faced with a tense situation, make their own decision about whether to leave the country or not," said Sutter.

He adds that during the Gulf War there were hardly any civilian casualties in neighbouring countries.

Swiss officials working in countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon are mostly expected to stay put - with up to 90 per cent of staff remaining in Israel.

Sutter says it is important to maintain operational embassies in Iraq's neighbours in order to offer support for Swiss citizens.

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud (translation: Isobel Johnson)

Key facts

Around 20 Swiss citizens live in Iraq, mostly government officials, ICRC workers and dual nationals.
Up to 100 Swiss live in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Over 500 Swiss citizens and dual-nationals live in Lebanon.
Some 2,300 Swiss and 8,000 dual-nationals live in Israel.

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In brief

The Swiss authorities remain tight-lipped about security measure being undertaken in Switzerland.

The small Swiss community in Iraq is mainly made up of officials, aid workers, and a number of people married to Iraqis.

The government say it only has authority over its employees - it can only make recommendations for the rest.

The authorities have not issued guidelines for those in neighbouring countries as they are not considered to be at risk.

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