Solberg shaken as bus tragedy unfolds

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg was promising a full review of “what went wrong” in what she called the “deeply tragic” attack on a regularly scheduled bus route over the mountains of Norway Monday evening. As details continued to emerge, Solberg said her government would probe everything from slow police response time to what caused a 31-year-old rejected refugee to fatally stab two fellow passengers and the bus driver.

Erna Solberg thinks she can do just as good a job, also with Progress Party leader Siv Jensen as finance minister in a new non-socialist government coalition. Jensen wants to spend far more of Norway's oil revenues than Stoltenberg's government has. PHOTO: TV2 screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Erna Solberg called Monday’s attack by an asylum seeker “deeply tragic” but said it was “too early” to draw any conclusions. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“This incident is deeply tragic, it must be safe to travel in Norway,” Solberg told state broadcaster NRK Tuesday morning. “Now we will help those closest to the victims, the local community and the employees of the bus company in the manner they deserve.”

Solberg said it was “too early to draw any conclusions” about the reasons for the attack and the slow emergency response to it. “We must use some time to see what went wrong in this connection,” Solberg said. “But there’s one thing this government is clear about: Police staffing must increase.”

Arrived in Norway last spring
Immigration authorities confirmed on Tuesday that the 31-year-old man from South Sudan who stabbed to death two fellow passengers on a Valdresekspressen bus and its driver arrived in Norway in April. He had first sought asylum in Spain and then traveled on to Norway, where his application for asylum was rejected in June.

Ingeborg Grimsmo of immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) told NRK that the authorities ordered he be sent back to Spain, his first port of entry in Europe. Nearly five months later, the man who’d been staying at an asylum center in Øvre Årdal since August 26 was still in the Sogne region. Grimsmo said she didn’t know exactly when he was to be sent out of the country, since that’s in the hands of the police and linked to their capacity to arrange deportations.

Website vg.no reported that he was set to be flown unescorted to Oslo on Tuesday and then on to Spain. Instead, he boarded the bus the night before and unleashed his attack. Police received their first alarm of what initially sounded like a traffic accident involving the bus shortly after 5:30pm, and it was handled by the station in Leirdal. Police headed out immediately, according to local officials, but opted to drive via the main E16 highway over the mountains instead of a shorter route along the fjord. They reportedly feared that repair work in a tunnel on the fjord work would cause delays.

‘Blood everywhere’
It thus took police well over an hour to arrive at the scene, by which time the bus driver and two passengers were dead. The assailant who initially forced the bus to stop had stabbed to death the bus driver, a 19-year-old Norwegian woman and a Swedish man in his 50s during his roughly hour-long attack. He was eventually apprehended by firefighters called to the scene from Årdal, who arrived at the scene before police.

Other motorists who’d stopped to help after seeing the bus stopped by the side of the mountain road were met by a gruesome scene, with one witness telling NRK there “was blood everywhere” and the body of one of the victims was lying on the steps leading into the bus. The 31-year-old assailant threatened them as well, wielding his knife and behaving in what they called a “desperate” manner. They then were forced to back off, until police arrived.

No earlier reports of trouble
Grimsmo of UDI said she’d had no reports that the assailant had been in trouble before, nor could she offer any information about his mental health. He initially had been placed in an asylum center in Oslo before being transferred to Årdal last summer. “Everyone gets an offer of a place to stay for as long as they are in Norway,” she told NRK.

Warnings have long circulated over the mental health of traumatized refugees who arrive in Norway and often are placed in remote locations around the country. Solberg’s government, like the left-center government before it, will be challenged to account for how refugees are treated and what precautions are taken to ensure their safety and that of those around them. Asked whether the 31-year-old from South Sudan had undergone any sort of examinations regarding his mental state, Grimsmo said she had no overview and wouldn’t be able to share such details if she had them.

Asked how immigration authorities follow up on the cases of asylum seekers, Grimsmo said it was “always a question of capacity” and “impossible to foresee this type of thing. We do our best within the framework we have. There will always be a question of whether we could have done more.”

Black armbands
Tor Brekke, who works with refugees and asylum centers housing them, told NRK that there were no records of any trouble with the man from South Sudan and no sign that he was “aggressive or mentally unbalanced.” He was said to have taken part in obligatory programs for refugees and raised no concerns among staff at the center. He said staff are trained to be observant and report any signs of health problems.

The asylum center in Årdal was set up just last summer and arranges housing for 150 refugees in a decentralized system, placing them in various residences around the town instead of in an institution. Grimsmo said UDI would be offering more support for the staff in Årdal because the bus attack “is a strong and uncomfortable experience for them.”

Bus drivers all over Norway were urged to wear black armbands on Tuesday, to honor their slain colleague, while debate over rose over how to improve security on board the bus lines that are a major means of transport in Norway. The head of  employers’ organization NHO Transport was already organizing a meeting among various bus operators to discuss safety issues.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund