Off-duty Norway troops help children leave Morocco

Mon Feb 1, 2010 11:26am EST

* Defence minister says naval commandos were off duty

* Departure was mother's responsibility, foreign min says



By Wojciech Moskwa

OSLO, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Off-duty Norwegian naval commandos helped two children escape from Morocco last July, Norway's defence minister said on Monday.

The children of a Moroccan Olympic gold medallist and his Norwegian ex-wife spent time at the Norwegian ambassador's residence in Rabat before they were smuggled out of the country on a boat with the help of the Norwegian commandos.

Morocco last year accused Norway of helping the children, then aged 13 and 16 and with dual Norwegian-Moroccan citizenship, to leave the North African country illegally.

Norway says it did nothing wrong, that the children were held in Morocco against their will and "feared for their lives", so they were allowed to spend a few days inside the embassy.

Oslo has repeatedly denied helping the children return.

Defence Minister Grete Faremo said the soldiers were not acting under orders from authorities and were off duty. "The Norwegian authorities did not assist when these children were taken from the country," she told a media conference.

"The troops' participation was unacceptable," Faremo said, adding that she had launched an investigation into the affair.

Moroccan newspapers said the children had been kidnapped from their father Khalid Skah, who separated from his wife Anner Cecilie Hopstock in 2006. Skah won a gold medal in the 10,000 metres race at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Norwegian authorities say the children had run away from Skah and sought refuge at the Norwegian embassy.

"The transportation of the children (from Morocco) was the mother's responsibility, plan and work," Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told the same news conference.

Hopstock had told Norwegian media that she had travelled with Skah and their children to Morocco in 2006. She said he locked them up in separate rooms and took away their passports.

She returned to Norway in 2007 and the children were meant to follow but Skah kept them in Morocco.

Skah had told a Moroccan newspaper he was living with his children in peace and harmony until the Norwegian ambassador came to his house with armed men and kidnapped the children.

Norwegian officials have denied this. (Additional reporting by Ole Petter Skonnord; Editing by Louise Ireland)