Swiss Guard: protection with holes?

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The Independent Online

The Swiss Guard, the small force of Swiss soldiers responsible for the Pope's safety, traces its origins back to the late 15th century, when Pope Sixtus IV formed an alliance with the Swiss confederates and arranged for a barracks to be built in the Vatican City.

Today the Swiss Guard is a corps of just 110 soldiers. Strict regulations decree that a recruit must be a Swiss national, Catholic, single male aged between 19 and 30, beardless and at least 174cm (5ft 8in) tall. They must have completed basic training with the Swiss military, and typically serve for between two and 25 years.

New guards are sworn in on 6 May each year, a date picked to commemorate the deaths of 147 of the guards in 1527, while they were protecting Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The soldiers wear a uniform of doublet and breeches in the traditional Medici blue, red and yellow, topped off with a white collar, white gloves, and a grey helmet with an ostrich-feather plume.

Training in defensive bodyguard tactics, unarmed combat and small arms has been emphasised since the 1981 attack by the right-wing Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca. The guards are armed with a long sword, a halberd (a pole weapon with an axe blade and spike), and nowadays also with small arms pistols, submachine guns or assault rifles when they are on security duties.

However they failed to prevent two assassination attempts on Pope John Paul II, the most serious being the 1981 attack. The Pope, who had been travelling in his open-top jeep in St Peter's Square, needed more than five hours of surgery after wounds to his left hand and stomach.

With the appointment of Pope Benedict XVI, the Swiss Guard seemed to relax. Its chief, Colonel Elmar Maeder, was quoted in 2006 as saying it was easier to protect the new Pope than his predecessor, and that an attack on this Pope was "unlikely and would be very difficult to carry out". Just a year later, in June 2007, a 27-year-old mentally unstable German man jumped the security barricade holding back the crowds and tried to board the Pope's open-top jeep in St Peter's Square before being wrestled to the ground by guards. The Pope was unharmed.