Norway may join the battle in Mali

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Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, who’s just spent the past week dealing with a crisis involving Norwegian hostages at an Algerian gas plant, is now considering sending Norwegian troops into neighbouring Mali, where many of the hostage-takers came from. Opposition politicians in the Norwegian Parliament appear to support such a move.

Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide is considering sending Norwegian troops to Mali, to help fend off Islamists intent on taking over the country. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide is considering sending Norwegian troops to Mali, to help fend off Islamists intent on taking over the country. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Eide and Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, both from the Labour Party, are evaluating whether to team up with other countries that are trying to help Mali’s embattled government fend off radical Islamists intent on taking over the former French colony. Strøm-Erichsen told  Aftenposten that Norway had been approached by Swedish officials in Brussels about cooperating in a Nordic training force that the EU was planning to send to Mali.

Norway is not a member of the EU but Strøm-Erichsen called the proposed Nordic cooperation “Interesting” and said she would discuss it with “our Nordic colleagues.”

Eide insisted that the prospect of sending Norwegian troops to Mali would not be influenced by the recent terrorist attack on the Algerian gas plant that Norwegian state oil company Statoil operated along with BP of the UK and Sonatrach of Algeria. “What happened in Algeria shouldn’t influence this discussion (over sending troops to Mali) at all,” Eide told Aftenposten on the phone from Tromsø, where he’d earlier committed to speaking at a conference on development in the Arctic. “It’s important not to let our evaluations be steered by terrorists.”

At the same time, however, Eide stressed that it also was important not to let the terrorists gain more of a foothold in northern Africa. “We must hinder extreme Islamist forces from establishing themselves in northern Mali,” Eide told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. “All experience shows that areas outside national control become grounds for terrorists.”

Responding to a call
Norwegian government officials also are responding to a call from British Prime Minister David Cameron for a “global response” to the attack on the gas plant in Algeria and the subsequent hostage crisis. British citizens are among the dead and missing while five Norwegians also remained missing on Tuesday. Twelve others were rescued.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has had conversations in recent days with both Cameron and the new president of France, Francois Hollande, who already has sent several thousand soldiers to Mali. During an address to Statoil employees in Stavanger on Monday, Stoltenberg referred to the attack on the gas plant as the “worst ever on Norwegian economic interests” but also on international trade. He stressed how the attack had affected so many countries, and “mobilized” their political leadership and cooperation.

Those are fairly strong hints that Stoltenberg also would be open to aiding Mali in resisting an Islamist invasion. Several political leaders in opposition also expressed support for such an effort, with Siv Jensen of the conservative Progress Party saying she “expected” Norway’s government to prepare a contribution to battling Islamists in Mali. Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats called international terrorism “a threat to us all” that should be resisted in a cooperative effort. Hareide said his party “wouldn’t rule out” sending troops to Mali, but that his party’s support would hinge on their mandate and composition.

Some skepticism
Others are skeptical, including Socialist Left politicians in Stoltenberg’s own government, while some oil industry experts question Statoil’s and the government’s claims that Norwegian companies must aim to carry on business as usual even in troubled and non-democratic countries. Helge Ryggvik, an oil industry researcher at the University of Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen that the security situation in Algeria and other troubled areas can become so demanding that “we should rather come home.” He claimed that when the risks are so high for both employee safety and to the physical plant, that executives should “stop and reevaluate what type of situation and society they’re in.”

Efforts were continuing, meanwhile, to find the five Norwegians still unaccounted for after the hostage crisis ended at the In Amenas gas plant where they worked for Statoil. While officials tried to maintain hopes for finding them alive, fears have risen that they are among those killed during the terrorist attack and the Algerian military’s counterattack last week. Norwegian police are now collecting dental records and DNA material for the five Norwegians that can help identify victims, and the government is sending a team of identification experts to Algeria consisting of two criminal technicians, two dentists and two pathologists.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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