Jazz hub Montreux at centre of Syria peace drive

Wednesday 22 January 2014 10.02
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Montreux is better known for its jazz festival in July
Montreux is better known for its jazz festival in July
The town is in the spotlight again as it is hosting the international peace conference on Syria
The town is in the spotlight again as it is hosting the international peace conference on Syria
Extra soldiers and police officers have been drafted in to provide security for the delegates (Pic: EPA)
Extra soldiers and police officers have been drafted in to provide security for the delegates (Pic: EPA)
The UN estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict
The UN estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict
President of the Syrian National Coalition Ahmed al-Jarba arrives at Geneva International Airport
President of the Syrian National Coalition Ahmed al-Jarba arrives at Geneva International Airport
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is representing President Bashar al-Assad (Pic: EPA)
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is representing President Bashar al-Assad (Pic: EPA)

Better known for its jazz festival and as the inspiration for rock anthem "Smoke on the Water", Swiss town Montreux is now the hub of efforts to end the war in Syria.

As Syria's government, the country's divided opposition and the international community gathered for talks, the picturesque lakeside town was locked down.

Metal security barriers blocked off a zone around the conference venue in the upscale Petit Palais hotel, more used to hosting the big names of showbusiness.

A key section of the single-lane road running parallel to the lake is closed to traffic, while the pedestrian path is also off limits.

The Swiss government imposed a 46-kilometre airspace exclusion zone over Montreux and authorised the deployment of 500 soldiers to bolster the police presence.

An explosives-hunting dog and its handler were patrolling on the street, while a police launch crisscrossed the waters of Lake Geneva.

Swiss police declined to reveal how many officers would be on duty during the talks, nor elaborate on operations.

But regional police spokesman Jean-Christophe Sauterel underlined the challenges in a town of just 25,500 people, where rival delegations will aim to avoid each other except when actually at the talks.

"There are some delegations that want to be physically separated, who cannot be in the same hotel, who do not want to be in the same hotel," he said.

Keeping them apart would be a challenge as the delegations are staying in hotels within a short walk of each other, or mostly located on the two main parallel streets of central Montreux.

Iran had been on the guest list, but in a sign of the diplomatic tension surrounding the talks, it was later removed.

The UN cited its refusal to back calls for a transition government made at a 2012 conference in Geneva.

Montreux residents were unfazed by the security operation and said they felt honoured that their town could play a part in ending Syria's brutal civil war.

"What's at stake in this meeting is so incredibly important. I just have to hope that they'll succeed, and that the name Montreux will be remembered for peace in Syria," said local man Francie Marechal.

Montreux was picked as venue for the opening session of the Syria talks owing to a lack of hotels in the planned location, Geneva, caused by a luxury watch fair.

After a high-level diplomatic conference today drawing ministers from dozens of countries, and representatives of Syria's warring sides, the talks are scheduled to shift to Geneva on Friday.

The statue of Queen frontman Freddy Mercury stands just metres from the conference hotel. Queen and several other artists, such as BB King and Carlos Santana, recorded regularly in Montreux.

The media, meanwhile, packed into the congress centre which every July hosts the Montreux Jazz Festival.

A short walk away sits the Montreux Casino, which caught fire in 1971. Rockers Deep Purple were in town at the time and penned "Smoke on the Water".

Keywords: syria, montreux