Maternity leave's over – now minister purges the military

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Spain's Defence Minister, Carme Chacon, resumed command with a flourish this week after taking six weeks' maternity leave, and announced a clean sweep of all the military top brass.

Before taking time to get to know the country's top generals personally, Ms Chacon said she would remove Spain's most senior officer, General Felix Sanz, the defence chief of staff, in addition to the chiefs of all three armed forces. Her action reportedly defies the advice of her socialist predecessor Jose Antonio Alonso, who urged her to keep General Sanz in post, and the private opinion of the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Her wholesale replacement of chiefs of the army, navy and air force was sweetened with expressions of "admiration and pride" in their work, and a desire to count on their "wise advice". She did not name their replacements.

Ms Chacon, who became Spain's first female defence minister in March when seven months pregnant, plans to boost military operations abroad "both in peacekeeping missions and in war zones", she told the parliament's defence commission on Monday. "Our armed forces are a force for peace that often operate in the theatre of war to protect civilians," she said. "There is no contradiction between one and the other. The armed forces are an armed, military organisation, not an NGO."

She proposes to lift restrictions on numbers of troops that can be deployed in such operations, currently limited to 3,000, and increase total troop numbers from 126,000 to 130,000, to raise the profile of Spain's international military presence. Spanish troops currently operate in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Chad and Bosnia. Her recommendations must be approved by parliament.

Troops stationed in Spain's disputed North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, which are claimed by Morocco, will be increased by 350 soldiers to 3,000. The territories have recently fended off attempts by African would-be immigrants to break through the frontier into Spanish soil.

She promised to establish defence universities, and creches, care homes and hospitals for military families. She also signalled an improvement in soldiers' rights and conditions, originally laid down in 1978, promising to supply better equipment and to establish equality between male and female troops. Complaints over armed forces' working conditions prompted a demonstration last November for the first time in Spanish military history.