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Schmid explores military missions in Africa

Defence Minister Schmid and President Touré of Mali two years ago

(Keystone)

Defence Minister Samuel Schmid has wrapped up a visit to west Africa to examine ways of strengthening missions of Swiss military experts on the continent.

Parliament earlier this year called for an increase in the number of Swiss soldiers on peacekeeping mission abroad.

Schmid met Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Touré, in Bamako on Wednesday for talks focusing on peace promotion in Africa and on an uprising led by Tuareg nomads in northeastern Mali.

The authorities in Bamako are interested in finding a solution to the conflict between the Tuareg and security forces, according to Schmid.

Schmid also visited the Peacekeeping Centre of the African Union in Bamako which Switzerland has helped fund.

During his three-day trip to the region Schmid held talks in Liberia where he visited Pakistani members of the 13,000-strong United Nations troops which have been stationed there since the civil war officially ended in 2003.

"The aim of my fact-finding tour is to see how a UN peacekeeping mission in Africa works," said Schmid, who is also scheduled to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo next year.

In September the Swiss parliament called on the government to double by 2010 the number of Swiss troops on foreign missions - from the current 250 to 500 - despite opposition by the rightwing Swiss People's Party and other isolationist groupings.

At the time, Schmid pledged to examine the suggestion but warned it would not be easy to implement it.

Speaking in Liberia on Tuesday, Schmid said Switzerland was unlikely to deploy a major contingent of troops to Africa. However, he mentioned the possibility of sending military paramedics or a helicopter team of about 20 members.

Afghanistan

Switzerland's activities on the African continent are currently focused on development aid.

There are also Swiss military staff working as legal experts in countries including southern Sudan, Mali, Eritrea, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Somalia.

Schmid's visit to west Africa this week comes following a decision to withdraw Switzerland's military experts from Afghanistan for security reasons by next March.

Under Swiss law troops are not allowed to take part in peace enforcement operations abroad.

Neutral Switzerland joined the UN in 2002, but it is not a member of Nato. It currently has about 250 peacekeepers and military personnel on international missions.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

In total there are about 250 Swiss peacekeepers and military personnel on international missions abroad.

There are currently about 220 Swiss peacekeepers in Kosovo serving under Austrian command in the Nato-led force.

The others include observers and experts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and at the border between North and South Korea.

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Switzerland and West Africa

Mali has been a priority country for Swiss development aid for 30 years.

Switzerland contributes an estimated SFr11.9 million in aid annually, mainly for bilateral development cooperation.

Swiss aid to Liberia is SFr5.1 million this year and is limited to the humanitarian sector.

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