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The week in Switzerland

Mikhail Gorbachev called for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in his address to the Swiss parliament

(Keystone)

Among the highlights of the past week was a visit to Switzerland by the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Parliament wrapped up its regular winter session, and judges gave the go-ahead for the upgrading of Switzerland's main airport.

The capital, Bern, hosted two prominent guests. The first was Gorbachev, now head of the environmental organisation, the Green Cross, who gave a speech to parliament.

In a powerful speech on disarmament, he warned of a potential human and environmental catastrophe as global powers dismantle their weapons of mass destruction.

The Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, held talks with the Swiss government on last weekend's landmark European Union summit focusing on EU expansion.

Although not a member of the EU, Switzerland watched the summit closely. Last May voters approved a series of bilateral accords with the 15-nation bloc, and next year the Swiss face a referendum on whether to begin talks immediately on full EU membership.

Parliament this week paved the way for the gradual opening up of the electricity market, giving industrial consumers and private households the freedom to choose their power suppliers.

Under the bill, which will bring Switzerland in line with most other industrialised countries, consumers will be able to choose their electricity supplier within six years of the legislation being put into effect.

However, several groups have threatened to challenge the legislation in a nationwide vote.

In the final week of the winter session, both houses of parliament also approved the federal budget of SFr49 billion ($29 billion), which envisages a small surplus.

In a ruling by the Federal Court, judges gave the green light to the expansion of Switzerland's main airport of Zurich-Kloten. The court rejected appeals to scrap the expansion but went some way towards appeasing opposition by imposing tough environmental restrictions.

In Indonesia, a Swiss journalist was released after 12 days in custody. He was arrested in the troubled province of Irian Jaya on charges of violating the terms of his tourist visa.

Oswald Iten, who works for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, was freed following diplomatic intervention by the Swiss foreign ministry.

One of Switzerland's tourist regions was again hit by a landslide. Three people died near Nendaz in canton Valais after a water main burst, triggering an avalanche of mud and rock which destroyed two chalets and farm buildings.

In October, heavy rains and mudslides killed 16 people and caused extensive damage in Valais.

by Urs Geiser

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