By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Denis Balibouse
LES PRADIERES, Switzerland (Reuters) - In one of Switzerland's largest military exercises in more than three decades, soldiers rehearsed repelling a fictional enemy, tossed grenades and fired live munitions as they showcased the self-defence capabilities that define their "armed neutrality".
The drills, involving 4,000 troops and spread across four cantons over nine days, took place as the country's role in European defence has come into focus amid calls for it to assist Ukraine in fighting the Russian invasion.
At the Les Pradieres shooting range last Thursday, a group of infantry soldiers - most of whom are civilians taking part in their regular military service - slowly paced up a hill, using a smoke grenade to conceal their movements before crouching down to shoot at targets.
The LUX 23 drills, planned since 2021, were not organised in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year, but the Swiss military said it made the exercise all the more relevant.
"The willingness of our partners and the understanding of the population regarding this kind of drill that has greatly changed," Mathias Tuscher, commander of Switzerland's Territorial Division 1.
"This, of course, is directly linked [to the war in Ukraine]."
Public and international pressure have grown for Switzerland to end a ban on exports of weapons to war zones, but some political factions fear this would mark the end of its foreign policy tradition of neutrality.
"We understand that people mix up the need to support a country under attack and the need to keep a place for the aggressor, when designated as such, to come talk and find solutions," said Mauro Poggia, state councillor in charge of the Geneva canton's Security, Population and Health Department.
"There is nothing worse than closing doors...Switzerland needs to be this exit door that is always there. This door must be protected."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Denis Balibouse; Editing by Angus MacSwan)