Stoltenberg: ‘No decision’ on Mali

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who’s won more praise for his handling of last week’s hostage crisis, won’t be sending Norwegian soldiers to Mali any time soon. His government is still weighing participation in an EU- and Nordic-backed training program to aid Mali’s resistance to radical Islamists, but with a third of Norwegians opposed to involvement in the fighting in Mali, Stoltenberg is putting off any decision on the issue.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, shown here at work in his office during the hostage crisis last week, has won more praise and voter support for how he handed the crisis. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, shown here at work in his office during the hostage crisis last week, has won more praise and voter support for how he handed the crisis. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Stoltenberg, in his address Wednesday to the Norwegian Parliament regarding the recent terrorist attack and hostage crisis in Algeria that’s feared to have claimed five Norwegian victims, said that no decision had been taken regarding Norwegian participation in an EU program to train security forces in Mali. The parliament, he said, will be consulted “in the normal way” if the issue becomes pressing.

Stoltenberg said he had agreed to a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has urged a “global response” to the terrorism in North Africa that hit an Algerian gas plant operated by BP of the UK and Statoil of Norway along with Sonatrach of Algeria.

“We have agreed to meet to discuss the war (in Mali) and how Norway and Great Britain can work together for an overall international effort against terrorism,” Stoltenberg said. But he wasn’t committing any troops now, with newspaper Dagsavisen interpreting Stoltenberg’s remarks as a move to put the proposal for Norwegian participation in Mali “on ice.”

Others weren’t so sure, given the interest shown in the proposal by both Stoltenberg’s foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, and his defense minister, Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen. An effort to help train Mali forces to better fend off the Islamist offensive also received support from opposition politicians in Parliament including the conservative Progress Party. Its leader, Siv Jensen, told Dagsavisen that “we have a responsibility to help out. If we’re going to fight against the rise of Islamists, we must participate in line with our allies.”

Jensen said she had “registered signals” from the government that Norway may get involved in an EU force under a Nordic “umbrella,” and that “can be the correct contribution. The most important is that we join in.”

Stoltenberg’s own government coalition partner, the Socialist Left party (SV), is firmly opposed to any involvement in Mali, however, and Stoltenberg needs government unity. The three coalition parties are already lagging in public opinion polls heading into the September elections, and Stoltenberg wants to avoid more splits. A poll conducted by research firm Respons for newspaper Aftenposten this week shows 33 percent of Norwegians also oppose involvement in Mali, while around half support sending special forces to Mali or helping with military training, advice and intelligence gathering.

Rise in voter support
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, got some good news on Thursday in the form of another public opinion poll that showed a jump in voter support for himself and his Labour Party. The poll was taken during the hostage crisis last week and reflects the praise Stoltenberg won, also from opposition politicians, for his ability to once again show how he can lead the nation through crisis.

The poll, conducted for Sentio Research Norge for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), gave his party 29.6 percent of the vote, up 2.2 percentage points and slightly ahead of Labour’s biggest rival, the Conservatives, which held 29.5 percent.

Another poll last week had given the Conservatives 40.1 percent, showing the wide divergence among polls and how public opinion can quickly turn. Last week’s poll was taken before the hostage crisis began.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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