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The week in Switzerland

Plans to set up a new bank, and the government's decision to divest itself of its majority stake in the country's leading telecommunications operator, Swisscom, were among the main stories making the headlines in Switzerland this week.

The timing of the cabinet announcement came as a surprise to many: the government said it wanted to sell off its majority stake in the leading telecommunications operator, Swisscom. It also gave the green light for the Post Office to open a bank.

The cabinet said the move was necessary to keep both companies competitive in an open market, but it pledged to consider safeguards to ensure public services did not suffer as a result. Business and centre-right parties had been pressing for further liberalisation. The centre-left and the trade unions for their part announced they would fight the plans in parliament.

Another proposal, also made public by the cabinet this week, caused less controversy: the government wants to set up an international centre to promote democratic control of armed forces. The new centre in Geneva is seen as an additional element of Switzerland's foreign policy.

In Fribourg, Switzerland this week hosted a major international conference to consider ways to improve coordination and humanitarian aid in disasters and other emergency situations.

Parliament, meeting for its regular summer session, continued discussions on Switzerland's policy towards the European Union. The Senate rejected overwhelmingly a proposal to immediately open talks on full EU membership. This decision was in line with decisions by the House of Representatives and the cabinet.

But senators remained adamant that eventual EU membership was a key objective of Swiss foreign policy. They also said the government should be given a free hand in deciding whether to start membership talks.

Parliament approved a proposal to grant the planned national exhibition extra financial guarantees. The nearly SFr340 million will help ensure that Expo 02 can open on schedule in less than two years' time on Lakes Neuchatel, Biel and Murten.

The week also saw the release of two prominent convicts. The financier, Werner Rey, was freed from prison unconditionally after an appeals court ruled that he had completed his four-year prison sentence. Rey served about half the time in jail in the Bahamas and was involved in a long-running legal battle over his extradition and his sentence for attempted fraud and fraudulent bankruptcy.

In an unrelated case, one of his fellow inmates also walked free. Peter Krüger, a failed property tycoon, was released after he paid a security deposit of SFr 800,000. A court had sentenced him in April to three and a half years in jail on charges of fraudulent bankruptcy.

Finally, lightning, hail and torrential rain caused extensive damage in many parts of the country. Numerous roads and railway lines had to be closed temporarily, crops were destroyed and hundreds of basements of buildings flooded. It was the third storm in less than two weeks and prompted fears of a repeat of last year's flooding.

by Urs Geiser

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