KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that a decision on whether to pardon a convicted Norwegian spy jailed in Russia, Frode Berg, would be made soon.
“He is condemned for espionage and has asked for a pardon. It has been assessed and the answer will come soon,” he told a news conference after holding talks with his Norwegian counterpart Ine Eriksen Soereide.
A Russian commission on Thursday recommended President Vladimir Putin pardon Berg, jailed for spying, spurring hopes in Norway that he may be released as part of a spy swap.
Berg, a retired guard on the Norwegian-Russian border, was detained in December 2017 and jailed for 14 years after being convicted of gathering intelligence about nuclear submarines. He pleaded not guilty to charges of espionage on behalf of Norway.
Lavrov was speaking in Kirkenes, a Norwegian Arctic town situated some 15 km (9 miles) from Russia, at an event marking the 75th anniversary of its liberation by the Red Army from the Nazis. It was the first Norwegian town to be freed from Nazi occupation and is also Berg’s hometown.
A banner with a picture of Berg with the word “Help Frode home!” was hung on a building overlooking the square where the official ceremony took place.
During the liberation, Nazi forces burned down virtually all buildings in the Arctic county of Finnmark, a region roughly the size of Switzerland, as part of a scorched-earth tactic aimed at slowing the Red Army’s advance.
As a soft snow fell over Kirkenes, King Harald V of Norway recalled on Friday the price paid by Soviet soldiers.
“(They) sacrificed themselves for our freedom,” the king said during a ceremony. “We don’t just share a border, we share also interests and hopes.”
Some 2,100 Soviet soldiers died during the 1944 offensive.
“I want to express my gratitude to Norway for honoring this memory,” Lavrov told the inhabitants of Kirkenes gathered in the square for the ceremony.
While Russia and NATO member Norway have been at odds in recent years over a build-up of military forces in the Arctic, residents from both countries maintain close cross-border ties, and many Kirkenes street signs appear in both languages.
Eighty-nine-year-old Mari, who did not give her last name, flew in especially for the occasion from southern Norway.
“It was important for me to remember,” she told Reuters.
As a 14-year-old, she escaped from Kirkenes with her family to hide in the mountains. There was little food and no shelter, she said.
“When we saw the Soviet soldiers, we were so happy. We just hugged them,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “Still today, I don’t know how to describe it.”
Reporting by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Jon Boyle, William Maclean and Hugh Lawson