Use of special forces in custody dispute sparks ‘diplomatic crisis’

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A bitter custody dispute involving a Norwegian woman and her ex-husband, a former Moroccan sports star, led to the use of Norwegian special forces to spirit the couple’s children back to Norway last summer, reported newspaper VG over the weekend. Now the entire affair is setting off what some are calling a “scandal” involving three Norwegian government ministries and an alleged “diplomatic crisis” with Morocco.

Opposition politicians in the Norwegian parliament are demanding a full investigation into how two specially trained military officers got involved in what the Foreign Ministry claims was a “private” operation to get the children out of Morocco and back to Norway, where their mother has a court order granting her custody. Both Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Defense Minister Grete Faremo said Monday that the state was not officially involved and that they’re probing exactly what happened. Faremo called any “private jobs” by special forces “unacceptable.”

The mother’s lawyer, Marte Svarstad Brodtkorb, has said the children’s situation was “extreme” and called for extraordinary measures. The children reportedly had run away from their father in Morocco and sought refuge at the Norwegian Embassy in Rabat in late July. 

Brodtkorb told newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that her client, Anne Cecilie Hopstock, only had contact with a former Norwegian police officer named “Petter” who helped her mount an “operation” to transport the children from the embassy in Morocco back to Norway. It was “Petter” who reportedly had contacted the two Norwegian equivalents of Navy SEALS.

A key question now is whether the two special forces officers were acting on their free time, as part of an official assignment or thought that at the very least, the operation had been approved by their military superiors. The Defense Ministry initially wouldn’t even confirm or deny that two officers assigned to the Norwegian Navy’s special forces took part in the operation.

“The entire political milieu expects a full investigation of this case,” Ivar Kristiansen of the Conservative Party (Høyre), a member of the Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee, told news bureau NTB. “If there’s even a hint that this operation was approved by either the Defense Ministry or the Foreign Ministry, it’s quite a sensitive matter.”

Both Kristiansen and Jan Arild Ellingsen of the Progress Party believe the children’s safety was most important, and that “most people are glad” they are now safe in Norway. 

“But we can’t have a situation where our military personnel can take on freelance jobs like this,” Kristiansen said.

Some commentators worry the two officers will become scapegoats in the affair, and may have believed they had at least tacit approval for the mission, while defense officials refuse to accept any responsibility.

The Labour politician who served as Defense Minister at the time, Anne-Grete Strøm Erichsen, has since become Health Minister. The case thus has landed on the desk of the current Defense Minister, Faremo. She refused comment until appearing at a press conference Monday. Sverre Diesen, who was military chief at the time, also refused comment, as did his successor Harald Sunde.

“Before we give any concrete comment, it’s important to clarify what has happened and to what degree defense personnel may have taken part in this operation,” defense spokesman Major Christian Øverli said. They’ve already had six months to investigate, since being informed of circumstances involving the children’s return to Norway last summer, but apparently hadn’t managed to reach conclusions yet.

“The worst thing” defense officials can do, observed an Aftenposten commentator on Monday, “is to try to sweep this case under the rug and hope it will be forgotten. Because it won’t be.”
It’s been reported that the special forces involved acted on their own free time and that the children’s mother asked embassy officials in Rabat to turn the children over to “Petter” and his crew. Embassy personnel and Norway’s ambassador to Morocco had been threatened by the children’s father, former Olympic athlete Khalid Skah, at the time.

Officials at both the embassy and the Foreign Ministry in Oslo have insisted that the operation had been privately organized and that they have followed all national and international rules. The children’s mother had sought help from the embassy for years, and complained that Norwegian officials earlier had not met her appeals to help her ensure enforcement of the court order she had for the children’s custody.

Embassy staff eventually had come to believe the children were in danger, Støre stepped in to allow that the children be given refuge in the embassy, and the embassy then turned the children over to the persons approved by their mother. Foreign Ministry officials also claim they immediately informed both the Defense Ministry and the Justice Ministry about the circumstances surrounding the children, both of whom have Norwegian citizenship.

“We want to stress that the operation which led to Skah’s children being sent back to Norway was organized privately without Norwegian authorities’ involvement,” said Ragnhild Imerslund of the Foreign Ministry.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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