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Monday, May 4, 1998 Published at 21:06 GMT 22:06 UK


New commander for world's smallest army
image: [ Alois Estermann: shielded the Pope from an assasination attempt in 1981 ]
Alois Estermann: shielded the Pope from an assasination attempt in 1981

The future of the world's smallest and possibly most colourful army, the Vatican Swiss Guard, has been assured after the appointment of a new commander. The continued existence of the 100-strong army had been under threat following the failure to find the right candidate for the post. But as Claire Doole reports, the job has gone to the man who protected Pope John Paul II from an assassination attempt:

For almost 500 years the Swiss Guard has proudly carried out its work: protecting the Pope. Resplendent in multicoloured uniforms allegedly designed by the painter Michelangelo, the force has stood guard outside the papal apartments and at the four main entrances of the Vatican in Rome.

But its contined existence had been under threat following the failure to find a new commander. There was talk in Vatican circles of replacing it with a civilian security firm.

But after a five-month search, the Vatican has finally found a man worthy of heading the Swiss Guard: Alois Estermann, 43.

The choice should come as no surprise. Mr Estermann literally leapt to worldwide fame when he jumped in front of the Pope in May 1981 to try to shield him from an assassination attempt.

But the Vatican had reportedly held out for a candidate who met all of the strict criteria: Swiss nationality, an army officer, Roman Catholic and an aristocrat. Mr Estermann is only a commoner, but presumably his track record as a proven Pope-protector held sway.

The question the Swiss newspapers are now asking is whether he managed to get a pay increase. The position comes with an annual salary of $40,000 - a sum which is seen as less than generous here in wealthy Switzerland.

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