Switzerland's first-ever armed peacekeepers have arrived in Kosovo in a move which sets a precedent for future missions abroad.
The troops flew into the Balkan province on Thursday, nearly 18 months after the country voted in favour of arming peacekeepers.
The troops will carry weapons - including assault rifles, pistols, pepper spray and submachine guns - for personal defence only.
The new contingent - part of the "Swisscoy" volunteer service - will serve as part of a multinational peacekeeping operation in the region.
Swiss troops have traditionally not been permitted to carry arms abroad because of the country's strict policy of neutrality. However, in June 2001, voters agreed to allow Swiss to be armed for purely defensive purposes.
Until now, unarmed Swiss soldiers - who have served in Kosovo since autumn 1999 - have carried out their work under the protection of armed Austrian troops.
They are not, however, allowed to join combat missions aimed at maintaining peace.
"These are just personal weapons as well as arms belonging to a special part of the mechanised infantry section," said Urs Casparis, a spokesman for the Swiss defence ministry.
"The duties of this section include the security of the camp, of convoys and of Swisscoy members who work outside the camp," he told swissinfo.
"But the main issue is that each individual will now have his personal weapon and will be ready for self defence."
The Austrian-Swiss camp is located on the outskirts of Suva Reka, between Prizren and Pristina.
Volunteers are involved in tasks such as the processing and supply of water to camps where it is in short supply, as well as providing medical assistance and supporting engineering projects.
Defence ministry officials say the arming of its soldiers will allow them to take a more active role in day-to-day peacekeeping activities in the region - and will also mean the Swiss no longer have to rely on the protection of others.
"Until now, the Swiss contingent has only had a logistical role to play," explained Casparis, "with duties such as the transport of water, petrol and gasoline for the Austrian and German soldiers serving in the same camp."
"But now, Swiss soldiers will be able to help with the task of securing the camp both during the day and at night," he added.
Pride at stake
Casparis said the latest batch of volunteers welcomed the fact that they would be armed while serving in Kosovo.
"We have already seen during training that the Swisscoy soldiers behave in a completely different way when armed," said Casparis.
"They are proud to have their own weapons [because it means] they are equal to the other soldiers in Kosovo. Until now, they really had minority complexes, because they were like little babies having to be protected by others," he added.
"But every soldier prefers to have his own weapon with him."
The last unarmed Swisscoy contingent handed over duties to the new batch of armed soldiers - who will remain in Kosovo for six months - at a ceremony on Thursday afternoon before flying back to Switzerland.
Thursday's handover also marked an increase in the number of Swiss troops serving in the region from 160 to around 200, just under the maximum 220 permitted under current defence ministry legislation.
Five tanks and a Super Puma helicopter from Switzerland will also be sent to Kosovo. Unlike previous missions, the tanks will be equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers.
Last December, parliament also voted to extend the mandate for Swiss soldiers serving in Kosovo until the end of 2003.
swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh
The Swiss government decided in June 1999 that it would send a peacekeeping force to Kosovo.
Parliament voted in December 2001 to extend the mandate for Swiss soldiers taking part in the multinational operation until the end of 2003.
Earlier that year, the Swiss voted in favour of allowing Swiss peacekeepers to be armed while serving on missions overseas.
The first armed contingent arrived in Kosovo on Thursday.