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The week in Switzerland

Middle Eastern affairs, the crisis in Mozambique and an unexpected move for asylum-seekers: these are some of the stories, which have made the headlines in the past week in Switzerland.

This content was published on March 3, 2000 - 22:01

Middle Eastern affairs, the crisis in Mozambique and an unexpected move for asylum-seekers: these are some of the stories, which have made the headlines in the past week in Switzerland.

The foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has been touring the Middle East, becoming the first Swiss minister to visit Egypt, Syria and Lebanon for 15 years.

Apart from bilateral issues, Switzerland's role in the multilateral Middle East peace talks was high on the agenda. Deiss met the leaders of all three countries, discussing what Switzerland could do to help along the peace process.

His statement of support for an end to Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights ruffled a few diplomatic feathers, but Deiss said he was merely repeating the stated Swiss position on the issue.

Switzerland was one of the countries, which moved this week to help the government of Mozambique cope with the terrible floods ravaging the country. On Friday, the Development Aid Agency said it was increasing its aid to SFr10 million, and was sending six experts to the area to help coordinate relief efforts.

There was a surprise in store this week for many asylum-seekers in Switzerland. As part of measures to clear a backlog of cases, the government is granting 13,000 people - mainly from Sri Lanka and Kosovo - refugee status. The move covers people who applied for asylum before 1993 and who have no criminal record.

The announcement came a day after Switzerland and Albania signed an agreement on the repatriation of asylum-seekers from Albania and temporary refugees from Kosovo.

The accord provides for the return to Albania of people whose requests for asylum have been turned down, and it also allows for the return, via Albania, of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who were granted temporary shelter during last year's conflict.

The government announced this week that Austria's foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, would visit Berne next Wednesday - the first member of the new Austrian government to do so. The news was criticised in some quarters because of the presence of the far-right Freedom Party in the new government, but Switzerland repeated its refusal to join efforts to isolate Austria.

There was praise for Switzerland from another quarter: in a speech in Zurich, the new US ambassador to Berne, Richard Fredericks, hailed the state of bilateral relations. He said Switzerland's democracy and its economy provided a good example for other countries, and also lauded Swiss efforts to help rebuild the Balkans.

How the Swiss view the world was the focus of a new study, which was highly critical of the Swiss media's coverage of foreign affairs. Experts said foreign affairs were often marginalised in newspapers and the main television news programmes. They also said media coverage was too Euro-centric.

On a traditional note, this week also marked the start of the annual carnival season - the time of year when tens of thousands of people take to the streets in parades and parties to mark the end of winter. Undeterred by fresh snowfalls, people in predominantly Catholic areas kicked off the festive season with a cacophony of noise and colour.

By Ron Popper

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