Swiss separatists steal iconic stone

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The Independent Online

A stone weighing 83.5kg (184lb), which has been tossed for a century in a celebration of Swiss folklore and national heritage, has been stolen by French-speaking separatists, who wish to secede from the canton of Bern.

The Unspunnenstein, named after the site of Switzerland's most revered stone-throwing contest, was taken on Saturday morning from a hotel in the central Swiss city of Interlaken, where it was on display before the competition on 2 and 3 September. The separatist organisation which claimed responsibility also stole the stonetwo decades ago and was responsible for desecrating a number of Swiss monuments in the 1980s.

The group claims to be fighting for a part of the historic French-speaking Jura region that remained in German-speaking Bern, which they believe should join the separate Jura canton, created in 1979.

The stone is one of the country's most cherished cultural objects and recalls a gathering called two centuries ago to reassert Switzerland's identity in the chaos of Napoleon's Europe.

Stone-throwing has its roots in the Middle Ages, but competition above regional level began with the 1805 festival of Alpine herdsman at Unspunnen, near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland. The event, re-enacted in 1905 and five times since, involves throwers lifting the stone above their head, running and hurling, and taking care not to step over a board. Each competitor brings the stone back for the next one.

A hotel employee told police she saw four men enter the hotel and steal the stone. They left smaller stone marked with the emblem of the neighbouring canton of Jura.