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Virtual peacekeeping on Lake Lucerne

Swiss and Nato troops spent the week engaged in joint military exercises

(Keystone)

Switzerland is hosting its first joint exercises in Nato's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. Staged along the shores of Lake Lucerne, the week-long operation is a simulated peacekeeping mission that is entirely desk-bound.

But fiction and reality are intertwined in such a realistic way, one could almost believe that two European nations are engaged in a fierce fuel dispute, and that ethnic violence has caused a serious refugee crisis.

The 460 participants engaged in this exercise start the day by watching the morning news. AC TV's Brian Dwyer announces that thousands of refugees have been leaving Nordland as efforts intensify to bring peace among the warring factions.

The news is fictitious, and AC TV doesn't broadcast outside the perimeter of Lucerne's Allmend military training zone. It is all part of the giant multinational exercise hosted by Switzerland, featuring computer rooms rather than combat zones.

Martin Jenny is a lieutenant colonel in the Swiss army: "The goal of this multinational brigade is to separate Nordland and Sudland and get the peacekeeping up and running," he said, indicating a seminar room in which a group of officers were peering at a large map, covered with stickers and pen marks.

"The brigade has been in action for 30 days, and they have to solve a lot of problems like mine disasters, and - since Monday - a refugee crisis."

The exercise, which ends on Friday, allows soldiers from various armies to train together, and learn how to implement a ceasefire and provide humanitarian assistance under a United Nations Security Council mandate. Twenty Nato or Partnership for Peace countries, including Switzerland, are represented.

The simulation has been drawn up according to criteria that Nato uses in real peacekeeping missions. For some participants, being in Lucerne provides them with a first ever look at how Nato does business.

"I have already learnt the procedures you have to follow within Nato," said Romanian Captain Alexandru Teodorescu.

"I did not know anything about peacekeeping operations before I came here," he added. "I have learnt a lot and have met wonderful people from many countries. Although Romania is not a Nato member, we hope it will join Nato soon."

Daniel Möchtli is an officer in the Swiss army. Like Romania, Switzerland is not a Nato member. But unlike Bucharest, Bern has no stated intention of joining the alliance.

"This has been extremely useful, it's the first contact we have with non-Swiss officers," he said.

Möchtli added: "We have learnt how a multinational brigade cooperates in particular cells; we have a very different system in Switzerland, and we have to comply with Nato standard orders."

Moechtli's colleague, Jan van Zoen, emphasised the importance of simply being able to understand one another, when forces of many nationalities come together in a crisis.

"For me the important thing is improving language skills," he explained "You have officers from 18-20 different countries and all have to communicate in English."

One of the brains behind the virtual manoeuvres is the deputy scenarios manager, Hans-Jörg Schmidt. The German captain relies heavily on past experiences, such as last year's Nato-led SFor mission in Bosnia, to create hypothetical incidents that are as realistic as possible.

"For example, we have included numerous mine-accident incidents, because in Bosnia there were two or three a day," he said. "This might sound funny, but some farmers would just pick up the mines and put them on the street, hoping SFor would take them away."

Because the focus is humanitarian, representatives of the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross are also present during this "virtual" peacekeeping effort.

Othar Shalikashvili, brother of the former US General Chief of Staff, and a retired US military official himself, is the man who evaluates progress and delivers the daily verdict to all participants.

"My job is to identify where more training is needed," he said after emerging from a lengthy briefing on the day's evolution.

Shalikashvili was an advisor in peace-enforcement operations in Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia when it was under British rule. Highly praised for his incisive critiques by the soldiers taking part in the peace-keeping exercise, he implicitly admits there is a lot of room for improvement.

"In all these exercises, we have to recognize that we're dealing with people who have never worked together before," Shalikashvili said.

"What still needs improving is that we need to work on the co-operation and integration of individuals into a cohesive staff organisation. We are trying to work them into a well-functioning team."

by Juliet Linley


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