Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre was back in Kabul Wednesday morning on an official visit kept secret for security reasons. He was home again Thursday afternoon, after talks with Afghanistan’s incumbent President Hamid Karzai, opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and several others — and relieved that a kidnapped Norwegian journalist had been freed by the Taliban.
Støre’s trip had been planned quietly for a long time. Just days before his departure came a call to Norway’s embassy in Kabul from a freelance journalist, saying he’d been kidnapped by the Taliban.
The journalist, 46-year-old Pål Refsdal, had been warned against entering Kunar Province but ignored the warnings in his quest to make a documentary on the Taliban. He was seized November 5 and his captors reportedly demanded the release of 12 Taliban prisoners, USD 500,000 and that Norway withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. He ended up being released on Thursday, with none of the demands being met.
Støre insisted Norwegian authorities hadn’t paid any ransom either, and confirmed that “Afghan authorities contributed to the solution in their way,” reports newspaper Aftenposten. Refsdal was met by Norwegian personnel when he arrived in Kabul.
The kidnapping added extra drama to Støre’s planned trip to Afghanistan, and although he monitored developments closely, he denied that he brought up the hostage situation during his talks with Afghan officials.
Støre had traveled to Kabul because he wanted to discuss the situation in Afghanistan after Karzai’s controversial re-election and before Karzai appoints a new government, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Norway has around 500 troops in Afghanistan and has been heavily involved in efforts to rehabilitate infrastructure and introduce reforms. The United Nations’ special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, is also a Norwegian diplomat and longtime colleague of Støre’s. Eide was harshly criticized by Afghan government officials last week for demanding an end to corruption and more reforms. Støre met with Eide in Oslo earlier this week.
Støre also planned to meet with his counterpart in Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Dadfar Spanta, several civilian organizations and the head of the international forces in Afghanistan, American General Stanley McCrystal, during his stay in Kabul.
It’s been nearly two years since one of Støre’s earlier, fateful trips to Afghanistan, when the hotel where he was staying was attacked by suicide bombers. Støre and the rest of the Norwegian delegation were forced to seek cover in the hotel’s basement and a Norwegian journalist was shot and killed in the attack inside the lobby of Kabul’s Serena Hotel.
Støre returned to Kabul last October, nine months after the attack, then under heavy security. This week’s trip was kept secret until he landed in Kabul, also for security reasons.