May 18, 2017 / 4:24 PM / 3 months ago

Swiss high seas fleet dwindles as state guarantees end

ZURICH, May 18 (Reuters) - A dozen ships from the Swiss high seas fleet are being sold off as the global shipping crisis takes its toll on the quirky remnant of landlocked Switzerland's efforts to ensure supplies of essential goods at times of international unrest.

Worried about the security of food and energy supplies during wartime, Switzerland launched its high seas fleet in 1941, putting Swiss flags on tankers and freighters it could call on at times of need.

But as times changed and supply routes became more stable, Switzerland has limited its support since 1959 to debt guarantees for shipping lines able to reduce borrowing costs in return for pledges to make ships available if Bern needed them.

Switzerland decided last year to end the debt guarantees from mid-2017, fearing the financial exposure it faced as shipping lines struggle with overcapacity.

It asked parliament this week to earmark 215 million Swiss francs ($220 million) for potential losses on the 770 million francs of outstanding guarantees.

The government has been trying since last year to help SCL Reedereien AG and Swiss Chem Tankers AG to sell 12 vessels, even at a heavy loss.

"This week binding sales contracts were signed in respect of the ships owned by SCL and SCT, and the sales should be completed within three months," the government said without naming the buyer.

SCL and SCT said in a separate statement that they would no longer have Swiss-flagged vessels after the sale of eight freighters and four chemical tankers.

The General Guisan, for decades the 49-vessel fleet's flagship, was sold to Chinese buyers in March. ($1 = 0.9784 Swiss francs) (Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by David Goodman)

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