Middle East

Jazz hub Montreux at center of Syria peace drive

The statue of the singer BB King is seen in front of the Montreux-Palace, the hotel that will host the "Geneva II" peace conference in Montreux on January 20, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

MONTREUX, Switzerland: 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 met for talks, the 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 show business.

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-kilometer airspace exclusion zone over Montreux, and authorized the deployment of 500 soldiers to bolster the police presence.

An explosives-hunting dog and its handler was 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 the 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 told AFP.

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 the town.

Montreux residents were unfazed by the security operation, and said they felt honored that their town could play a part in ending Syria’s 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,” 60-something Francie Marechal told AFP.

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

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

Just meters from the conference hotel stands the statue of rock legend Freddy Mercury, whose group Queen recorded regularly in Montreux.

The media, meanwhile, packed into the congress center which every July hosts the Montreux Jazz Festival – an iconic international event which has a repertoire that actually spans musical genres.

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.”

“I’m pleased that we’re going to be known as something more than entertainment experts,” local councillor Christian Neukomm told AFP, noting that in 2010 Montreux also hosted a summit of leaders from French-speaking nations.

Neukomm said he hoped the Syria talks would be a stepping stone to peace, a sentiment echoed by Houria Zghami as she was pushing a baby buggy along the street.

“I really hope the talks will achieve their goals, and that Montreux can help that,” Swiss-Moroccan Zghami told AFP.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 23, 2014, on page 4.




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