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Switzerland suspends officer's trip to Israel

Schmid says military cooperation with Israel should continue

(Keystone)

Swiss Defence Minister Samuel Schmid has blocked a visit to Israel in December by the head of the Swiss Land Forces, Corps Commander Luc Fellay.

Schmid came out against the visit three weeks ago when fighting was raging between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

"I asked the head of the Land Forces to suspend a visit he had planned to Israel," Schmid told the Sunday newspaper Le Matin dimanche.

Army spokesman Jean-Luc Piller said the trip, planned from December 2-5, was aimed at gathering information about artillery and electronic warfare.

The decision to postpone the visit was reported to the Israeli embassy in Bern "three weeks ago" when the conflict was still ongoing.

But Schmid said in the interview that military cooperation between Switzerland and Israel "was not so great as to warrant being suspended".

He therefore saw no reason to stop trade in arms between the two countries.

Modest imports

"We do not export [arms to Israel] and the import of Israeli military material is extremely modest and in our interest," he added.

Schmid noted that imports of Israeli military equipment were valued at about SFr40 million (SFr32.28 million) for 2006.

"In comparison with the SFr2 billion of commercial trade between the two countries, that's nothing."

He also said there was no question of cancelling the traditional annual meeting of Swiss and Israeli army officers due to take place in Switzerland in November.

Another army spokesman, Dominque Bugnon, said the meeting was a regular event at the technical level. Switzerland held such meetings with many other countries.

Lebanon

In the newspaper interview, Schmid also commented that conditions were not in place to send Swiss soldiers to Lebanon.

"Uncertainty still reigns on the mandate of the United Nations and on the number of soldiers, and the situation on the ground of operations is very unstable."

He noted that Swiss law only permitted the participation of Swiss soldiers in peacekeeping operations. In Lebanon, a peace-keeping situation would not happen for several years, he felt.

Schmid said that for the time being there was no concrete aid project.

"In a few weeks or months time, if the security conditions develop positively and the government decides favourably, we could take on a modest humanitarian mission by sending a number of voluntary unarmed soldiers."

"The sending of military doctors is also a possibility," he said.

Schmid also did not hide his doubts about Switzerland making an application to sit in the UN Security Council, an issue brought up last Monday by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

"I have doubts, I would not do it," he commented.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Switzerland reduced its military cooperation with Israel in 2002 after Israeli occupation of towns on the West Bank.

This picked up again in the spring of 2005 with a Swiss order worth SFr147 million with an Israeli electronics systems company.

The conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah has refuelled criticism in Switzerland of Swiss-Israeli military cooperation.

But this cooperation has not been called into question by the Swiss government.

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