16 Die in Norway Shooting and Bombing
OSLO — Norway suffered two shocking attacks on Friday, when powerful explosions shook the government center in the capital and, shortly after, a gunman stalked youths on an island summer camp for children of members of the governing Labor Party. Police were treating the assaults, which together killed at least 16 people, as connected, according to Norweigian news media, though it remained unclear who was behind them. The explosions, presumably from one or more bombs, turned the ordinarily placid Scandinavian capital into a scene reminiscent of terror attacks in Beirut or Baghdad or Oklahoma City, blowing out windows of several government buildings, including one housing the office of the Norwegian prime minister, who was unharmed. The state television broadcaster, citing the police, said seven people were killed and at least 15 injured in the explosions.
Even as police locked down a large area of the city, a man dressed as a police officer entered the camp on the island of Utoya, about 25 miles northwest of Oslo, a Norwegian security official said, and opened fire.
“The situation’s gone from bad to worse,” said Runar Kvernen, spokesman for the National Police Directorate under the Ministry of Justice and Police, adding that most of the children at the camp were 15 and 16 years old. Panicked youths jumped in to the water to escape or went into hiding on the island, which has no bridge to the mainland, a witness said. Many could not flee in time.
Oslo police said that 9 or 10 people were killed at the camp, according to The Associated Press. A witness on the island told the state broadcaster that he saw between 20 and 25 bodies on the island, The A.P. reported; the full extent of the carnage remained to be learned.
A suspect was eventually apprehended and was being questuioned by police on Friday. The acting chief of police, Sveinung Sponheim, said the suspect had been seen in Oslo before the explosions there, but they stressed that the investigation was just beginning and that they could not yet say whether the attacks were terrorism-related.
Conflicting reports centered on one group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad. According to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute, the group issued a statement claiming responsibility, saying the attack was a response to the presence of Norwegian forces in Afghanistan and to unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad.
But Norwegian television reports later suggested that the group had denied responsibility. In the immediate aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, jihadi forums are often filled with claims and counterclaims that are impossible to independently confirm.
Norway is a member of the NATO alliance and has a small fighting contingent in Afghanistan. It was one of several countries named by Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, as potential targets for attack. In 2006, Norwegian newspapers reprinted Danish cartoons that angered Muslims by lampooning Muhammad. Norway has also historically been a frequent participant in peacekeeping missions and a host for diplomatic talks, including the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a committee of the Norwegian Parliament.
Muslim leaders in Norway swiftly condemned the attacks. “This is our homeland, this is my homeland; I condemn these attacks and the Islamic Council of Norway condemns these attacks, whoever is behind them,” said Mehtab Afsar, secretary general of the Islamic Council of Norway.
Witnesses on the island told Norwegian television that the man who opened fired had initially identified himself as a police officer. “He said it was a routine check in connection with the terror attack in Oslo,” one witness told VG Nett, the Web site of a national newspaper.
Bjorn Jarle Roberg-Larsen, a Labor Party member who had telephone contact with teenagers on the island, said: “Kids have started to swim in a panic, and Utoya is far from the mainland. Others are hiding. Those I spoke with don’t want to talk more. They’re scared to death.”
In Oslo, stunned office workers and civil servants in the vicinity of the bombed buildings said that at least two explosions were heard in quick succession, as the sound of the blasts echoed across the city. Giant clouds of light-colored smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air over the city as a fire burned in one of the damaged structures, a six-story office building that houses the oil ministry. The police said the initial explosion occurred at around 3:20 p.m. local time. “We think there was more than one blast,” Mr. Kvernen said. He said he could not confirm the number of casualties.
The force of the explosion blew out nearly every window in the 17-story office building across the street from the oil ministry, and the street and plaza areas on each side were strewn with glass and debris. The police said they were on heightened alert as they combed through the debris in search of clues.
“This is very serious,” Mr. Stoltenberg told the Norwegian broadcaster TV2 by telephone, but he said it was still too early to call the blast a terror attack.
At about the time of his television appearance, Norwegian media reported that the police had also sealed off the offices of the broadcaster after a suspicious package was discovered there.
The explosions, which ripped through the cluster of modern office buildings around the Einar Gerhardsens plaza, occurred at a time when many Norwegians were on vacation and many more had left their offices early for the weekend.
Mr. Stoltenberg’s office is on the 16th floor of the tallest building in the area, a towering rectangular block whose facade and lower floors were damaged by the explosions. The Justice Ministry also has its offices in the building.
Helge Skinnes, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, was in the building at the time of the explosions and was still at the site when reached by telephone Friday afternoon. “We have a crisis situation,” Mr. Skinnes said, declining to comment further.
Norwegian authorities said they believed a number of tourists were in the central district and around the main government buildings at the time of the explosion, but that it was not otherwise crowded. “Luckily it’s very empty,” said Stale Sandberg, who works in the directorate for family, youth and children affairs, a few blocks down the street from the prime minister’s office.
At the site of the explosion, the police evacuated and roped off the area as tension mixed with shaken fascination. People milled around the area, some snapping photos of the destruction. Store windows were blown out for several blocks around.
Earlier this month, Norwegian prosecutors filed a terrorism charge against Mullah Krekar, the Iraqi-born founder of the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, who is accused of making death threats against the head of Norway’s Conservative Party, Erna Solberg. Mr. Krekar co-founded Ansar al-Islam in 2001, but said a year later that he no longer led the group, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and United Nations.
Norwegian authorities have previously ordered his expulsion from the country, but the process was suspended amid concerns that he would face the death penalty in his home country.
A threat assessment released in March by the Norwegian police said that though support for extremist Islamic terrorism was not widespread, “activity in certain communities” meant that the threat level would be heightened in 2011. “Some extreme Islamists currently appear to be more globally oriented,” the report said, “and it is primarily this group who could present a direct threat to Norway in the year ahead.”
The report also added that Norwegian businesses and high-profile figures were likely to be targets. Three Norwegian men were arrested in July 2010 on suspicion of terrorism and were said to be a terrorist “node” in a larger global network, American counterterrorism officials said at the time.
After the explosions, the city filled with an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability Friday. “We heard two loud bangs and then we saw this yellow smoke coming from the government buildings,” said Jeppe Bucher, 18, who works on a ferry boat less than a mile from the bomb site. “There was construction around there, so we thought it was a building being torn down.”
Source: New York Times