Norwegian police and military were busy again this week investigating more unidentified drones seen flying over critical energy infrastructure. After a Russian man was arrested for trying to leave Norway with two drones containing lots of pictures, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre likened the incidents to a new form of “hybrid threats.”
“This is part of challenges from so-called ‘hybrid threats’ that can challenge preparedness and security,” Støre told news bureau NTB Friday afternoon. “We are following this closely.”
Støre also noted that the police are actively investigating drone sightings, the latest of which set off alarms Thursday night at state oil company Equinor’s huge gas processing plant at Kårstø between Haugesund and Stavanger. Newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad reported that the drone observed by military forces stationed at Kårstø was described as too large to be used by hobby drone operators.
The Kårstø plant plays an important role in processing and transporting gas and condensate from central oil fields in the North Sea. Equinor has confirmed that security had already been boosted at the plant, which is operated by Gassco, which in turn confirmed that police and defense forces were in place at the site. Gassco is a Norwegian state-owned company that also operates 7,800 kilometers of pipelines that send natural gas to Europe and Great Britain. Recent suspected sabotage against Russian pipelines in the Baltic have made all gas infrastructure potential targets in Norway.
A large contingent of armed police forces were also sent out to patrol both sides of the Boknafjord, on which the plant is located. “Our main goal is to verify and identify the drone, the drone pilot, persons and vehicles in the area,” Victor Fenne-Jensen, operations leader for the Sør-Vest Police District told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
“Given the security situation in Europe now, and that this is a gas plant that has a central role in energy supplies to Europe, it’s natural that we take such (drone) observations seriously,” Fenne-Jensen said. Especially when they’re reported by military personnel who, along with police, think the drone over Kårstø plant was operated from the island of Rennesøy, on the other side of the fjord and at least 17 kilometers away.
NRK reported late Friday afternoon that Home Guard soldiers on duty near Kårstø may have had eye-contact with the drone’s operator. “Defense forces reported an observation of the drone and a possible drone pilot, but they lost the observation after a relatively short time,” Fenne-Jensen said. Police had no suspects and had not made any arrests as of Friday afternoon.
Farther to the north, however, a Russian man was arrested while crossing Norway’s border to Russia at Storskog earlier this week. NRK reported that he was stopped for inspection by customs officials and found to be in possession of two drones, a large quantity of encrypted photo material, several electronic storage devices and three passports.
The man, a 50-year-old Russian citizen who claims he’s merely been on an extensive holiday in Norway, reportedly admitted that he had flown drones and taken photos with them while in Norway. Prosecutor Anja Indbjør of the Finnmark Police District told NRK that investigators found photos of Norwegian scenery but also real estate. The fact that parts of the photo files are encrypted “can indicate several things,” Indbjør said. “It can be that the man wanted to protect it,” she said, possibly to prevent others from seeing it.
The county court in Finnmark ordered that the man be held in custody for at least two weeks while police continue their investigation. The police need time to go through all the photos, and when they have a better overview, they’ll evaluate charges against him that could send him to prison for up to three years.
His defense attorney, Jens Bernhard Herstad, said the man had traveled around Southern Norway and driven all the way to Kirkenes and Storskog. He reportedly visited Lillestrøm, close to Oslo, and Bergen before driving along the coast northwards. He was carrying two Russian passports and one Israeli passport, but reportedly argued that it’s “normal” for Russians to have multiple passports, in his case because of various visas “and lots of stamps” Indbjør told NRK.
Sanctions against Russia also prohibit Russians from flying drones in Norway, in line with closed airspace to Russian-operated flights over the Norwegian mainland, its offshore territory, Svalbard and the Arctic island of Jan Mayen. The Russian now in custody is currently only charged with violating the drone prohibition, of which he claims he was unaware. Charges may be expanded depending on what police find amidst his drone photos.
His defense attorney argued that he should only be fined, in line with other prohibitions against flying drones in illegal zones. The court disagreed, since he repeatedly violated sanctions during his travels in Norway.