A meticulously planned terrorist attack hit Norway yesterday when a bomb blast in Oslo and a lone gunman killed at least 17 people in the country's worst atrocity since the Second World War.
A devastating bomb ripped through the capital killing at least seven people close to the offices of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Hours later a gunman posing as a policeman rampaged through an island 20 miles away after infiltrating a youth camp organised by the ruling Labour party and attended by 600 people, some as young as 13.
Campers fled as the gunman, confirmed as Anders Behring Breivik, 32, last night, fired at groups of youngsters.
Many of them fled into the sea to try to escape and others scrambled to hide in the buildings and undergrowth. One witness said he saw at least 20 people lying dead in the water. The Norwegian gunman was wounded and is in custody.
Initial suspicion fell on Islamist militants angered by Norway's military role in Afghanistan though the nationality of the gunman raised the possibility of an attack by far-right extremists or someone with a domestic agenda and possibly working on his own.
Police said they did not believe that it was international terrorism, according to officials cited by Norwegian news agency NTB. The apparent targets, government buildings and a youth political rally, also pointed to a domestic grudge rather than the focus on mass casualties adopted by al-Qa'ida and other militant groups.
The attacks – the deadliest in Western Europe since the 2005 London bombings which killed 52 people – were carefully planned. Police believe that the gunman was in Oslo before the bomb attack before heading to the island and tricking his way past security to get on to the island where the premier was thought to have been due to speak to the campers. According to a Norwegian TV station, he has links to domestic far-right groups.
Mr Stoltenberg appeared to be a possible target of the attacks as the bomb exploded just outside his office, blowing out most of the windows in the multi-storey block. The prime minister was at home at the time of the attack and was not harmed.
"Co-workers have lost their lives today," he said. "It's frightening. That's not how we want things in our country. But it's important that we don't let ourselves be scared. Because the purpose of that kind of violence is to create fear."
The army established a cordon around Oslo following the bomb attack that injured scores of people.
The United States, European Union, NATO and the UK, all quickly condemned the bombing, which Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague called "horrific" and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen deemed a "heinous act".
"It's a reminder that the entire international community has a stake in preventing this kind of terror from occurring," President Barack Obama said.
The central part of the city yesterday resembled a battlefield with dozens of windows blown out by the huge explosion while shell-shocked inhabitants and tourists wandered through broken glass and rubble, blood-smeared and bleeding from their wounds. Two people were badly wounded in the blast, police said.
There was no warning given for the attack but the Norwegian authorities were yesterday reported to have only recently warned about the possibility of terrorist attacks because of the country's military role in Afghanistan.
There were initial claims of responsibility for the attacks from Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami (the Helpers of the Global Jihad), according to Will McCants a terrorism analyst cited by The New York Times. But it could not be confirmed.
Whoever was behind the attacks, Islamic fundamentalist internet forums were yesterday reported to have described the Oslo blast as "cheering news". One user was quoted as saying: "Get your troops out of Afghanistan or you will see blood on the streets." Since the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper five years ago, al-Qa'ida has declared its intention to carry out an act of revenge on a Scandinavian country.
The centre of Oslo was rapidly sealed off by police because of fears of another blast, while bomb disposal experts scoured the area in search of possible bombs.
"Some people covered with blood are lying in the street. There is glass everywhere. It is total chaos. The windows of all the surrounding buildings have been blown out," said Igunn Andersen, an eyewitness and journalist with Norwegian public radio reporting from the scene. As the injured were being treated, reports detailed a second attack on the island of Utoya, some 20 miles to the northwest. Police said the gunman pulled out a gun and started firing into crowds of youths at the came.
"I saw a lot of people running and screaming so I ran to the nearest building and hid under a bed," Emilie Bersaas, 19, told Sky News. "At one point the shooting was very, very close ... the people in the next room screamed really loud. We're all a bit shaken up right now because we don't know who is fine and who is not fine. I'm a little worried about my friends and the other people on the island."
Grethe Helen Larre told The Independent that she watched the drama from the mainland across the water from Utoya when she first heard the shooting. "There were bodies hiding behind bushes. A lot of people were in the water. They were swimming and trying to get away," she said.
Television images showed victims swimming from the beaches of the small island. Police teams were still searching the waters last night for people missing with the toll expected to rise. A Norwegian police official said there is at least one unexploded device at the youth camp
The gunman is believed to have travelled to the island by boat. A guard Simen Braende Mortensen told VG newspaper that he saw a man aged in his 30s with a bulletproof vest and a uniform drive on to the boat.
*Jens Stoltenberg has been a key figure in the Norwegian Labour Party over the past 10 years, serving as Prime Minister three times.
*His age, 52, his electoral success and his centre-left background have led to comparisons with Tony Blair.
*His first stint as Prime Minister was short, lasting only a year until the next general election in 2001. But his reformist approach to social welfare proved unpopular with voters.
*He returned as Prime Minister in 2005, promising to improve Norway's already healthy public services. His coalition government has used a growing oil price to maintain Norway's high standards of life.
*Since 2005, Stoltenberg has committed Norway to pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It currently has almost 700 soldiers in the NATO-led ISAF force.