Norway copes with new national crisis

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg headed for Statoil’s headquarters in Stavanger on Monday, as the hostage crisis in Algeria continued to put his government and Norway’s oil industry to a new and dramatic test. With five Norwegians still missing and Statoil’s co-operated gas plant the target of last week’s terrorist attack, Stoltenberg faced an emotional meeting with Statoil employees.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (center), shown here with Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide during a weekend update on the hostage crisis, is coping with another terrorist attack that's directly affected Norwegians just 18 months after the attacks of July 22, 2011. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (center), shown here with Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide during a weekend update on the hostage crisis, is coping with another terrorist attack that’s directly affected Norwegians just 18 months after the attacks of July 22, 2011. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Stoltenberg was joined by Oil & Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe, who’s been a major supporter of Statoil’s operations at home and its expansion around the world. They planned to meet Statoil chief executive Helge Lund, who’s been dealing directly with the crisis since the attack on the In Amenas plant last Wednesday, and visit Statoil’s emergency preparedness center before meeting with Statoil employees Monday afternoon.

Queen Sonja and Crown Prince Haakon, meanwhile, headed to Bergen, to visit survivors and families of the hostages at a crisis center set up by Statoil.

Both Stoltenberg, his foreign minister Espen Barth Eide and Lund already have expressed “deep and growing unease” over the fate of the five Statoil employees still missing after 12 others, nine of them Norwegian, survived the attack and were brought to safety. “We must acknowledge that Norwegian lives may have been lost,” Stoltenberg said at one of his nightly televised press conferences since the crisis began.

“We will, and must, maintain hope for more good news (from the scene of the attack in the desert of southeastern Algeria),” Lund said on Saturday. “But at the same time, we’re prepared that we, over the next few days, will need to relate to bad news.”

Statoil and other Norwegian officials continued to search through hospitals and emergency centers in Algeria, in the hopes of tracking down the missing Norwegians. Algerian authorities have confirmed that 32 of the Islamist terrorists who attacked the gas plant and 23 of the hostages they took were killed in the Algerian military’s counterattack on Thursday, but warned the death toll could rise. The identities of all those killed were not immediately available.

Missing Norwegians identified, link to minister
The five Norwegians still missing were identified as Thomas Snekkevik of Bergen, age 35; Victor Sneberg of Sandnes, age 56; Hans M Bjone of Brandbu, age 55;  Alf Vik of Grimstad, age 43; and Tore Bech of Bergen, age 58. Bech, vice president of operations, has been working as Statoil’s local chief of the In Amenas facility and also is stepfather of Norway’s government minister in charge of foreign aid, Heikki Holmås.

“It is with sorrow and despair that I have learned that my mother’s husband, Tore Bech, is feared dead in the hostage drama in Algeria,” Holmås wrote in a press statement Sunday night. “Tore married my mother on May 8, 1981, when I was just eight years old. We’ve had a good and close relationship.” Holmås, of the Socialist Left party (SV), wrote that his thoughts also went to “all those who have lost or fear they have lost a family member or friend. I thank Statoil and all the others who have shown compassion and all those who tried to save lives these past few days.”

The identities of the missing were released only after the hostage drama was over, especially, reported newspaper Aftenposten, since the close link between a high-ranking Statoil hostage and a Norwegian government minister could have been used to the terrorists’ advantage.

Lacked power and influence
Commentators noted over the weekend that both Statoil and government officials were largely powerless during the hostage crisis, able to provide comfort and logistical support but far from the scene of the crisis and without real influence over how the Algerian authorities dealt with the terrorist attack. While they had urged restraint, the Algerian military opted to attack the terrorists, but Eide later suggested they had no choice, since the terrorists were attempting to assemble their hostages in one location and thus strengthen their position. Neither Eide nor Stoltenberg has expressed the anger and criticism that’s come from leaders of some of the many other countries involved in the crisis.

“The situation developed such that it was necessary (for the Algerians) to step in,” Eide said Saturday night.

He and Stoltenberg not surprisingly condemned the terrorists’ attack, with Stoltenberg claiming that Norway will “never give in terrorists or others who feel themselves above the rule of law and rules of democracy. No one can give themselves the right to take lives and subject other persons to suffering. We who believe in freedom and democracy must stand together in the fight against terror.”

Eide also rejected calls for Statoil, which newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) referred to in an editorial over the weekend as a “symbol for the modern Norway,” to scale back on its operations in dangerous, far-flung locations. Eide claimed that would, in a sense, allow the terrorists to win if they succeeded in scaring off international business.

“The best defense is to show that you don’t let yourself be scared off,” Eide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

DN also noted that Norwegians have chosen to take major risks far from home for centuries, and that the risks facing fishing vessels in stormy seas, for example, are extreme compared to the chance of being the target of a terrorist attack.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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