UPDATED: Norway’s ambassador to Pakistan was among diplomats killed on Friday when a military helicopter carrying them on a sightseeing tour crashed in the mountainous Gilgit region north of Islamabad, confirmed Foreign Minister Børge Brende. “He was one of our best and most experienced colleagues,” Brende said at a hastily arranged news conference Friday afternoon.
The ambassador, 61-year-old Leif Holger Larsen of Moss, was on board the helicopter and killed when it crashed in the mountains around 300 kilometers north of Islamabad. The helicopter reportedly was carrying 11 foreign diplomats, including ambassadors and their families, on a tour of the scenic area to promote tourism.
Flags were lowered to half-staff at the foreign ministry in Oslo on a day when Norway otherwise was celebrating Liberation- and Veterans Day, with flags flying all over the country. Brende had recently met with Larsen, who had just taken over as Norway’s ambassador to Pakistan last September. He’s survived by a wife and a son.
International media reported that a Taliban-linked group in Pakistan, Tahreek-e-Taliban, was claiming that it shot down the helicopter. Military officials immediately dismissed the report, claiming that the helicopter crashed “because of a technical error.” Military spokesmen told Pakistani media that there was “no possibility” that the crash was caused by a terrorist attack.
A spokesman for the Pakistani military, Asim Bajwa, reported that six people were killed in the crash, including two Pakistani pilots and four of the diplomats. Military officials reported that 13 others survived, but suffered “varying” degrees of injury.
Among the dead, according to Bajwa, were the ambassadors from the Philippines and Norway and the wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors. Among the injured were the ambassadors to Pakistan from Poland and the Netherlands.
News bureau AFP reported that the helicopter, part of a Pakistani military air convoy, crashed into a school and burst into flames. There were no students at the school on Friday, however, so ground casualties were limited.
Diplomats from nearly 40 countries were taking part in the trip along with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He was on board another helicopter and was said to have been flown back to Islamabad, where he expressed deep sorrow over the helicopter crash and later declared a national day of mourning.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg broke away from one of many Liberation Day memorials taking place in the country on Friday to comment on the ambassador’s death. “This is incredibly sad,” Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “We have lost a well-respected and talented diplomat, but our thoughts go first and foremost to his family who have lost someone much too early.”
Larsen was a career diplomat who joined the foreign ministry in 1984, right after receiving a master’s degree in political science from the University of Bergen. He served at Norwegian embassies in Saudi Arabia, Iceland, and Belgium and later was a “special representative” on issues involving Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was among the Norwegian foreign ministry staff who survived a terrorist attack by the Taliban at the Hotel Serena in Kabul in 2008, and promised to return to help Afghanistan. His posting to Pakistan was his first as an ambassador.
Solberg said Norway acknowledged Pakistani officials’ denial that the crash was the result of a Taliban attack. “For now we are accepting what the Pakistani authorities are saying, that this was an accident,” Solberg said, adding she had no reason to speculate further.
Brende said he had asked for an investigation into the cause of the accident. “In a conversation with the Pakistani foreign minister, he said they couldn’t account for all the circumstances,” Brende told NRK. “This is something that must be investigated.”