Thursday 27 October 2016

Geneva on terror alert after Swiss reveal 'specific threat'

Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva

Published 11/12/2015 | 02:30

A County of Geneva police officer stands guard outside Cointrin airport in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Reuters
A County of Geneva police officer stands guard outside Cointrin airport in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Reuters

The Swiss city of Geneva raised its alert level yesterday and said it was looking for suspects who, according to national officials, had possible links to terrorism.

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A security guard at the United Nations' European headquarters said Swiss authorities were searching for four men believed to be in or near the city.

Another guard said the UN compound was on maximum alert, and Geneva prosecutors said they were investigating the preparation of criminal acts.

Federal police in the capital Berne said they had passed on information about people with possible links to terrorism, but were not connecting them to Islamist militant attacks in Paris last month in which 130 people were killed.

"We have gone from a vague threat to a specific one," said Emmanuelle Lo Verso, a spokeswoman for the security department.

She declined to comment on news reports indicating that either four or six suspects were being sought or say whether French or other foreign authorities had pointed out the suspects.

The newspaper 'Le Matin' said a car registered in Belgium, home to some of the Paris attackers, had driven through a police checkpoint near Geneva, prompting police to examine a photograph of four suspected Islamist militants provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Two sources confirmed that the CIA had provided the photo, but a CIA spokesman in Washington declined to comment.

The 'Tribune de Geneve' newspaper said a suspect car with two men in it had been spotted in Geneva, which sits on the French border, and then leaving Switzerland.

Swiss television said the city's Jewish community had been told to be vigilant. "Sensitive sites have been alerted," a Swiss official said.

The guards stationed at vehicle entry points to the UN grounds were, unusually, carrying Mp5 sub-machine guns yesterday.

One guard said the UN premises had been evacuated for a time late on Wednesday night "as a precaution".

The sprawling complex sits at the heart of "international Geneva". The headquarters of the World Health Organisation, the UN human rights office, the refugee agency UNHCR, the World Trade Organisation and the International Committee of the Red Cross are a short walk away.

"The heightened security affects the entire Geneva area, and the UN is taking measures that are commensurate with those taken in the host country," UN Geneva spokesman Rheal LeBlanc said.

Senior US and Russian diplomats are set to hold talks on Syria in Geneva tomorrow, but the United Nations said the location would be kept secret.

Swiss and French officials say they have been working closely together since the Paris attacks.

The Swiss Attorney General's office is conducting 33 criminal proceedings linked to Islamist militancy, and opened nearly a dozen new investigations in October and November, a spokeswoman said.

The Geneva Department of Security initially said yesterday's measures were "in the framework of investigations carried out following the Paris attacks", until the federal police denied any immediate connection.

The November 13 attacks on Paris, claimed by Isil, left 130 people dead and hundreds of others wounded. Salah Abdeslam, a fugitive suspected in the deadly attacks in Paris, is still at large. Several arrests were made in Belgium following the attacks.

One Swiss police official said that Abdeslam was not among those being sought.

Heavily-armed police carrying sub-machine guns were posted outside diplomatic missions in Geneva. Normally, officers carry lighter weapons.

Geneva police have also deployed more officers at the city's train station and airport. The UN office in Geneva was also increasing its security precautions.

"As part of investigations conducted both internationally and nationally following the Paris attacks, Geneva police and its partners are actively searching for people flagged by the Confederation," the security department statement said.

Police are working with international and national authorities to locate the suspects they believe to be in the Geneva region.

The office of the Swiss federal prosecutor confirmed that federal authorities had passed on information to Geneva police, and added: "As soon as precise and concrete information is available, the appropriate measures will be taken and information will be provided."

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