Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey, who is on an official visit to Cambodia, has paid tribute to two important Swiss humanitarian projects in the country.
The children's hospitals set up by Beat Richner, as well as Piergiorgio and Simonetta Tami's refuges are lifelines for many people and help build a positive image of Switzerland, she said.
Calmy-Rey, who is also the foreign minister, met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his deputy in the capital Phnom Penh, using the occasion to sign a bilateral aviation agreement.
She was also welcomed by King Norodom Sihamoni at his magnificent palace, where they held talks on economic and development issues.
But a large part of her trip was devoted to visiting Swiss aid projects which have become local institutions – the Beat Richner hospitals and the Tamis' Hagar centres for women and children.
"I am proud to visit projects of such value which bear witness to the strong humanitarian link with Cambodia and form the basis of our country's excellent image over here," Calmy-Rey told reporters.
The four Kantha Bopha hospitals – all up to western standards - employ a staff of 1,750 and have 850 beds. They treat an estimated 85 per cent of all sick children in Cambodia.
The hospitals were founded by Richner, a doctor, mainly from public and private donations from Switzerland - the Swiss government gives SFr3 million ($2.4 million) – and have become a mainstay of the Cambodian health system.
Calmy-Rey visited the newest medical centre, which was inaugurated in December 2005. "My presence and our financial support are the proof of the esteem in which we hold you," she told a group of assembled medical staff.
Richner told swissinfo he was pleased by the president's words, although he is hoping for the government to raise its contribution to SFr7.5 million.
"The fact that she came here is very important for the donors in Switzerland and it's confirmation that their faith has been well placed," he said.
Before leaving for Siem Raep, where a team of Swiss experts is helping to restore one of the temples in the ancient city of Khmer in Angkor, the minister also visited two centres run by the Hagar foundation, set up by husband and wife Piergiorgio and Simonetta Tami in 1994.
"In Cambodia family violence against women is very widespread. After being beaten and thrown out of the home, many women and their children end up on the streets with no way of starting a new life," Piergiorgio Tami told swissinfo.
"We help these people start again, giving them a roof over their heads and, thanks to the training opportunities, we help them reintegrate socially and economically."
Calmy-Rey thanked the couple – recently winners of the Brandenberger Foundation prize (a type of Swiss Nobel prize) and the Schwab Foundation social entrepreneurs of 2005 – for their efforts.
"Until now we have received our donations almost entirely from [the Italian-speaking canton of] Ticino," said Tami.
"We hope that Micheline Calmy-Rey's visit will help to get us known in the rest of the country."
Calmy-Rey will continue her visit to southeast Asia on Wednesday, stopping off in Indonesia.
swissinfo, Marzio Pescia in Phnom Penh
Beat Richner has founded four children's hospitals in Cambodia (annual budget $16.5 million).
They treat around 800,000 children for free each year.
The Hagar project, run by the Tamis, is dedicated to women and children who are victims of violence or who have been abandoned.
Since 1994 the Hagar refuges have trained and educated 100,0000 women.
The Cambodian authorities welcomed Micheline Calmy-Rey with great ceremony.
Phnom Penh international airport was decorated with many Swiss flags. It also featured a huge picture of the Swiss president, placed next to one of King Norodom Sihamoni.
Each street in the capital taken by the Swiss delegation was decorated with the Swiss colours and banners with friendly slogans.
Once at the palace for her meeting with the king, Calmy-Rey was greeted by crowds of students. Children threw flower petals.
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