Norwegian soldiers who have returned from the NATO operations in Libya this week have described their experience in the military conflict, while domestic criticism continued.
Norway had contributed to the NATO operations in Libya with six F-16 fighter jets, reduced to four in June, which returned on August 1. 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. Although the mission began with public and cross-party support, many became critical of the the operations over time, including one of the parties in the Norwegian government coalition, the Socialist Left Party (SV).
‘A step backwards’
Following the end of Norway’s direct involvement in the conflict, peace researcher Kristian Berg Harpviken of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) criticized the mission when speaking to NRK, doubting whether civilian lives had been saved and suggesting that the NATO mission may have increased the likelihood of civil war. Although he said that much about the war was “too early to conclude,” he attacked politicians who “use” the UN mandate “in order to avoid criticism.” “What looked like protection of civilians has shown itself to be an intervention that took sides in a conflict, and that was partly motivated by many of the participating countries’ own interests,” he said, concluding that the Libyan operations may become seen as “a step backwards” for the principle of avoiding military intervention where there is risk of exacerbating the humanitarian situation.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ole Sandnes, speaking to NRK as he and the other soldiers landed in Oslo on Wednesday from the Souda Airbase in Crete, admitted that “some people have lost their lives, and that is something we reflect on, and it is difficult.” “When we drop a bomb, there is enormous explosive power, and it is nearly impossible to know if there are people in the vicinity of where the bomb explodes,” he continued. He admitted that there were times when “we bombed goals where we knew there are people,” such as “a vehicle” or “a target that shoots at us.”
‘Tears shed’ but ‘proud’
Sandnes said, “we used unbelievable amounts of time to plan such a mission.” He continued, “every single raid, every single bomb that is dropped, is gone through beforehand, during and evaluated afterwards.” He stressed that “if we are unsure whether what we are going to attack is a legitimate goal, then we do not attack.”
In mission evaluations, Sadnes emphasized that “there is nothing we do not talk about,” adding that whole flight crews can be “troubled” by what happens in addition to pilots. He also described “the fear of experiencing a mistaken bombing” that affected the crew during the entire mission. “There have been tears shed some times,” he said.
Nonetheless, Sandnes stated to NRK that Norwegian planes have not killed civilians, something that Minister of Defense Grete Faremo has confirmed publicly on many occassions. Sandnes described himself as “proud” of the mission.
‘Same values’ as Utøya dead
Soldiers also told of their experience of the bombings in Oslo and shootings at Utøya island while they were stationed overseas. One soldier, 19-year-old Frida Straith, had to wait several days to hear if a friend of hers on Utøya had survived the terrorist attack, something she described to NRK as making her and the other soldiers feel “hopeless.” Lieutenant-Colonel Sandnes compared the situation in Libya with the attacks at home in Norway. “We carried out a mission in Libya in order to stop the fact that one person or one system carried out the right to kill their own people,” he said, adding that “just that also happened in Norway” where “one person took it upon themselves to carry out violence and kill innocents.” “The values we travelled with on the mission were attacked with force of arms in Oslo and on Utøya,” he concluded.
Minister of Defense Faremo, a Labour Party representative, used her address to the returning soldiers to compare them to those killed at Utøya. “You travelled there with the same values and fundamental attitude as the young people on Utøya,” she added.
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