Reuters International

Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer speaks to media after the weekly meeting of the Federal Council in Bern, Switzerland February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

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ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's finance minister has defended the use of offshore companies by the world's wealthy to cut their tax bills, now under scrutiny after publication of the "Panama Papers".

"You have to create these opportunities," Finance Minister Ueli Maurer, from the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), told Swiss newspaper Blick in an interview published on Friday.

"Rich people pay a lot more tax than me," said Maurer. "I am not rich - and without the rich I would have to pay more tax."

Four decades of documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specialises in setting up offshore companies and has offices in Zurich and Geneva, showed widespread use of those instruments by global banks and triggered investigations around the world.

Maurer's comments were not echoed by the head of Switzerland's financial watchdog Mark Branson on Thursday. He said the country's banks must clamp down on money laundering in the wake of the Panama Papers.

The Geneva prosecutor has also opened a criminal inquiry in connection with the millions of documents leaked to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. They then became part of a broader investigation coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Switzerland is the world's biggest international wealth management centre with around $2.5 trillion (£1.78 trillion) in assets and has taken on more wealth of late from emerging markets, from which it is harder determine the origin of assets, Branson said.

(Reporting by Joshua Franklin Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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