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A government proposal to contribute peacekeepers to U.N. missions has aroused strong passions in a country that sat out two world wars and still doesn't belong to the United Nations.

Defenders of Switzerland's neutrality hope to prevail when the proposal, involving a constitutional amendment, goes before the people for a vote Sunday.The outcome is expected to be a cliffhanger as an initial "yes" majority has slipped in recent opinion polls.

Complicating the debate are economics. Although neutrality is a fundamental tenet of Swiss national policy, Geneva is the European base for the United Nations and several of its specialized agencies.

The United Nations has about 70,000 peacekeepers in trouble spots around the world and is constantly looking for more as demands on the world body grow. The United States and other countries have made it plain that Switzerland should pull its weight.

The government plans to provide about 600 peacekeepers at an estimated cost of about 100 million Swiss francs ($71 million) a year. Peacekeepers would not be allowed in hot spots such as Somalia and Bosnia.

"Women, Vote Yes!" Switzerland's only female Cabinet member, Ruth Dreifuss, pleaded in a one-page letter in the tabloid SonntagsBlick, after surveys showed most women were against.

The government has tried to convince voters that Swiss independence will not suffer - citing the example of neutral Finland, Sweden and Austria, which regularly provide troops for the United Nations.

"I firmly believe in neutrality, but I don't think it is something which fell from heaven and cannot evolve with events," said Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, summing up the government's attitude in a recent debate organized by two newspapers.

However, the Swiss have a knack of ignoring government advice when it comes to international relations.

They voted overwhelmingly against U.N. membership in 1986 and narrowly against participation in a European free trade agreement in 1992.

Isolated and protected by the Alps, Switzerland was able to develop with no major hindrance after its founding in 1291. One of the most stable nations, it has maintained its independence and boundaries since 1815, refusing to take sides in World Wars I and II.