Custody dispute sets off diplomatic incident

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A custody dispute over two teenagers with dual Norwegian and Moroccan citizenship has turned into a diplomatic incident, involving charges of kidnapping and death threats against Norway’s ambassador to Morocco.

The kidnapping charges are being hurled by both sides in the dispute, with the Norwegian ex-wife of former Olympic athlete Khalid Skah initially claiming that he had kidnapped their children and was holding them against their will in Morocco.

The teenage children, who both hold Norwegian passports, claim they escaped from their father’s home in Morocco July 19 and made their way to the Norwegian embassy in Rabat, claiming they feared their lives were in danger. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre personally cleared the way for them to be sheltered at the embassy.

‘Extraordinary’

“My colleagues and I viewed it as correct to give the children protection, since it was a situation where Norwegians overseas had their lives threatened,” Støre told Norway’s TV2. He described the situation as “extraordinary” and said in a press statement that the children were allowed to stay at the embassy for three days early last week, “which just shows how serious the situation was.”

Embassy officials later turned the children over to their Norwegian mother, who has since brought them back to Norway. Bjørn Blokhus, Norway’s ambassador to Morocco who now is in Norway as well, said on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s nightly news program Tuesday that he was also subjected to death threats himself from the children’s father, as were members of his staff.

Moroccan authorities, however, have themselves charged Blokhus and embassy staff with contributing to a new kidnapping of the children, by their mother, and with violating Moroccan law and their diplomatic duties. Støre and Blokhus deny the charges, claiming they were not involved in the mother’s decision to move the children out of Morocco.

Diplomatic negotiations

The incident has led to top-level meetings, with Norway’s foreign ministry calling in Morocco’s ambassador to Norway for talks in Oslo and Støre talking directly with his counterpart, Moroccan Foreign Minister Fassi Fihri. Støre told the Moroccan foreign minister that it had been his duty to protect two underaged Norwegian citizens.

Diplomatic staff in Oslo, meanwhile, told the Moroccan ambassador that they were concerned about the security of Norway’s embassy in Rabat and its staff, and that they expected Moroccan authorities to take the death threats issued by Khalid Skah seriously.

Skah, who lived in Norway while pursuing his athletic career as a cross-country runner in the 1990s, has not responded to requests for comment in Norwegian media but Oslo paper VG reports that he told Moroccan newspaper Aujourd’hui Le Maroc that the Norwegian ambassador had “suddenly involved himself in my life and won’t let me be in peace. He threatened to kidnap my two children.” Ambassador Blokhus strongly denied the charge, saying he can prove he wasn’t even in Morocco at the time.