Norway eases Turkish travel warning

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UPDATED: An attempted military coup in Turkey prompted Norwegian officials to advise against travel to Turkey that’s not absolutely necessary. Several airlines cancelled flights to Turkey over the weekend including the country’s popular holiday destinations on the southern coast, but Norwegian Air was still operating flights to Antalya, not least to bring stranded tourists home.

Foreign Minister Børge Brende was back on national radio on Saturday, warning that the situation in the Turkish capital of Ankara remained unclear and urging Norwegians in Turkey to register themselves with the ministry at (external link, in Norwegian), so that the ministry could establish contact with Norwegian residents in the troubled country. On Sunday the ministry eased the travel warning to include only Istanbul and Ankara, but not for transit through those cities’ airports. The warning against travel to tourist destinations in the south was lifted.

Crisis team in place
The ministry set up a crisis team to follow the tense situation in Turkey and help its own citizens caught in the unrest. The ministry said it was working continually to monitor the situation, also through its own embassy in Ankara.

Many Norwegians are currently on summer holiday in Turkey, the ministry noted on its own website. Several airports and roads in Turkey were closed during the night, leaving travelers stranded at airports in Ankara and Istanbul.

Morten Myksvoll, who runs a website on Turkish politics, arrived in Istanbul just before the coup broke out Friday night. He said his hotel room was shaking from the roar of fighter jets flying low over the city and setting off sonic booms, that there were sounds of explosions and helicopters, and that thousands of people were in the streets. Some faced off against approaching tanks and other military vehicles.

As fears rose that Turkey was slipping into dictatorship, a clearly worried Norwegian foreign minister urged support for the country’s elected leadership and especially for democratic principles. “The (Norwegian) government looks forward to continued cooperation with Turkey to maintain democracy and solve some of the major security challenges in the area around Turkey,” Brende stated.

He added that the coup “will pose another test of the strength of democracy in Turkey.” Others, including a researcher specializing in Turkey at the University of Oslo, have already expressed concerns that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will exploit the attempted military coup to further strengthen his own hard-line government that has been under constant criticism for ignoring human rights and principles like freedom of the press and expression.

A Turkish TV station reported Saturday afternoon that 2,745 judges, including five of Turkey’s most prominent judges, had been dismissed. That does not bode well for the future of freedom and democracy in the country, and Brende said urged Saturday night that Turkish laws and its court system be upheld. Erdogan was also making ominous claims that military officials involved in the coup would be harshly punished and suggesting that the death penalty would be reinstated.

‘Gift from God’
Erdogan has claimed that the coup failed, that hundreds of military officers had been arrested and that he remained firmly in charge, although reports continued to come in on Saturday of ongoing confrontrations and even the hijacking of a military vessel. “He (Erdogan) has called this (the coup) a ‘gift from God,'” Einar Wigen at the University of Oslo told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “He will try to put his opponents, those who are behind the coup, out of action.”

The coup had already claimed at least 265 lives by mid-day Saturday, with more than 1,000 people injured. There was shooting in the streets, reports of military personnel arresting police officers and residents were urged to remain indoors. Nerina Weiss of the research institute FAFO in Oslo, which has a large Turkish-Norwegian population, said many people were scared and deeply shaken. “They’re afraid this is all a sign of increased polarization within Turkey,” Weiss told NRK. Wigen said he also fears the coup attempt will further split the Turkish population.

“There are clearly many who were against the coup but who also are opposed to Erdogan,”  Wigen said, “so it’s difficult to really gauge the president’s support within the population.” While some worried about the prospect of a military dictatorship, others feared Erdogan would seize the opportunity to impose a dictatorship of his own.

Norwegians planning to travel to Turkey were urged, meanwhile, to contact their airlines or tour operators. Turkish Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) cancelled their flights to Istanbul while Norwegian flew to Antalya early Saturday morning as scheduled. Pegasus Airlines also operated its flight to Istanbul Sabiha Gökcen, while Star Tours’ TUIfly Nordic cancelled its evening flight to Antalya.

NRK reported Saturday afternoon that SAS was sending empty aircraft to Turkey to bring home stranded passengers. British Airways also cancelled its flights to Turkey. Several travel insurance firms announced they would cover the costs of evacuations and cancellations of trips to Turkey that had been paid for in advance. By Sunday, however, the situation was said to have improved in the south and flights to the tourist destinations were due to resume. Berglund