Norwegian F-16 fighter jets that have been assigned to the NATO operations in Libya returned home on Monday, as Norway’s direct involvement in the mission effectively comes to an end.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Norwegian fighters flew 596 of the 6,125 missions by NATO in total so far, dropping 542 bombs and clocking up around 2,000 hours of flight time over a four month period.
Ten Norwegian staff officers will remain involved in the operations, where they may continue working on the selection of bombing targets.
Planes needed at home
Norway originally had six F16s involved in the bombings, reducing the number to four on June 24 at the end of an initial three-month commitment period. At its height, around 120 Norwegians would have been involved in the various aspects of the mission. While the planes have returned, the crews will initially travel to Denmark for debriefings before finally coming home.
Explaining the decision to return the jets, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg commented to NRK that Norway “is among few NATO countries that needs its planes for national preparedness” during peace time “in order to maintain Norwegian sovereignty in large sea areas in the north.” Norway had already pulled back two planes on 24 June as part of an agreement to bring home all the F-16s on August 1, which the Socialist Left Party’s Bård Vegar Solhjell described as a “decent compromise.” His party, which is part of the governing coalition, had wanted to withdraw all six planes in June.
‘Reduced Gadhafi’s capacity’
Defense Minister Grete Faremo from the Labour Party told news agency NTB that she remained convinced about the merits of the mission, stating that “when we now withdraw, it is with the knowledge that we have contributed to a strong reduction in Gadhafi’s military capacity.” The military themselves will answer questions on the mission at a press conference on Wednesday 3 August, although Vice-Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen praised the Norwegian force as having “high competence and modern equipment” that “has made a considerable effort in order to protect civilians in Libya.”
Norway had received high praise for its commitment and very high relative contribution to the Libya mission, including from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Libyan mission began with cross-party consensus and strong public support, but a number of groups became more critical as the operations progressed, including the Socialist Left Party. Criticism focused partly on the civilian casualties from the NATO bombings, but Minister of Defense Faremo rejected claims that Norwegian planes had been involved missions that led to civilian deaths when speaking to NRK.
Opposition parties and Norwegian media outlets were also critical of the lack of openness around the mission. Authorities have refused to comment on whether Oslo was one of the locations for talks between representatives of Colonel Gadhafi and the Libyan opposition. Norwegian defense officials were also criticized for withholding information about operations in which Norwegians were involved.
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