Hostage was warned against Syria trip

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The 48-year-old Norwegian man now being held for ransom in Syria was warned against making his dangerous, and perhaps fatal, trip into Syria. He’s still believed to be alive, but no ransom is likely to be paid.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has flatly refused to pay any ransom to the “cynical terrorists” holding Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad from Porsgrund in Telemark County. Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s family has said they can’t possibly raise the amount of money demanded  by the hostage takers.

‘Hope and despair’
“Our son and my brother has been kidnapped and held as a hostage in Syria since January,” the family said in a statement released through the Norwegian foreign ministry on Thursday. “We have, during this difficult time, wavered between hope for a solution and deep despair. We still hope that the Norwegian authorities’ constructive work will result in his release.”

The family went on to state that they had “no possibility” to raise the “enormous amount” demanded by the kidnappers. “We can only appeal to the hostage takers to set our son and brother free.” Newspaper VG reported that the ransom demanded is in the “tens of millions of kroner.”

The family otherwise didn’t want any contact with the news media, saying they were going through “an extremely difficult time” and asking that their request for privacy be respected.

Recent photograph
Foreign Minister Børge Brende said at a brief press conference Thursday afternoon that analysis of the photographs released by the hostage-takers suggests they were taken  during the last month. “We’re working on the assumption that he’s still alive,” Brende said. He said around 25 to 30 people are on the crisis team that’s still trying to obtain Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s release.

It remains unclear why Grimsgaard-Ofstad, who reportedly was working on a degree in political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, traveled to Syria in January of this year. The last communication from him came on January 24, when he wrote on social media that he “finally” had made it into Syria. He’s believed to have entered over a border crossing in southwestern Turkey and traveled in Syrian government-controlled areas until he was kidnapped.

Newspaper VG reported Thursday that before Grimsgaard-Ofstad traveled to Syria, he was contacted by Norway’s police intelligence unit PST. Officers from PST received a warning about him and because of some extreme statements he’d written on social media. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that PST had kept an eye on Grimsgaard-Ofstad for some time.

Some of his acquaintances, meanwhile, told state broadcaster NRK that he’d been attracted to the far right wing of Norwegian politics in the 1990s and lately was preoccupied with the war in Syria. He reportedly liked videos featuring Bashar al-Assad and Hizbollah in Lebanon. “There were times it was difficult to know which side he took in the Syria conflict,” one acquaintance told NRK.

UN veteran also warned against Syria trip
A veteran of UN forces in the Middle East, Terje Sæterbø, told NRK that Grimsbaard-Ofstad had contacted him in May of last year and asked how he could get into Syria. Sæterbø, who leads a veterans’ alliance in Bergen and works with aid efforts in the Middle East, told NRK that Grimsgaard-Ofstad also asked “whether I knew anyone who could help him” get into Syria. “But we don’t go into Syria,” Sæterbø said, adding that he warned the 48-year-old Norwegian against attempting the trip.

“I could understand during the course of our conversation that this person did not have the qualifications needed to head into a war zone,” Sæterbø said. “Most go through a course, among other things on hostage-taking. I warned him not to go. I clearly told him this was nothing like a trip to Spain. It’s dangerous. But I couldn’t forbid him from going.”

Sæterbø was it was “very frightening” to learn Grimsgaard-Ofstad had been kidnapped. “It’s terrible for his family and for the nation,” he said.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund