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Swiss reject plan to scrap military draft

GENEVA (AFP): Switzerland's voters on Sunday rejected a plan to axe the country's military draft, bucking Europe's anti-conscription trend and sticking to a tradition as Swiss as chocolate and cheese.

Results from Sunday's referendum showed an overwhelming 73 percent against scrapping compulsory military service, and just 27 percent in favour.

Armed neutrality has been the cornerstone of Switzerland's defence policy for almost two centuries, with soldiers straddling the civilian and military worlds, keeping their weapons at home when they are not in training.

The plan was opposed by the political right and centre, as well as parliament and Switzerland's cross-party government.

Christophe Darbellay, leader of the centrist Christian Democrats, hailed the result.

"This shows how attached the Swiss are to their militia army," he said.

The Swiss apply the label "militia" not only to their army, but also to the national tradition of part-time politicians, volunteer firefighters and others who serve the public.

"A strong militia army is, and in the future will remain, the guarantor of a working national defence policy," said a statement by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, the largest group in parliament.

Male Swiss citizens aged between 18 and 32 begin service with a seven-week boot camp and take six 19-day refresher exercises over ensuing years. Since 1992, non-military service, for example in environmental projects, has been available for conscientious objectors.

Direct democracy is another bedrock of Swiss society.

The question on Sunday's ballot papers was a basic "Yes" or "No" for ending compulsory military service.

"The people weren't taken in by this wrongheaded question," Denis Froidevaux, head of the Swiss Officers' Association, told public broadcaster RTS.

"That doesn't mean that criticism or proposals should be ignored," he added.

Switzerland is midway through the latest in a round of reforms which have slashed the number of trained troops from 625,000 five decades ago to 155,000 today.

By 2016, the headcount is set to be 100,000 -- a leaner and fitter force, supporters say.


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