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Norway on edge over drone sightings, arrest of son of Putin confidant

An air traffic control tower at Bergen Airport in Norway on Wednesday. (Marit Hommedal/NTB Scanpix/AP)

BRUSSELS — Norwegian officials warned Thursday that there could be more arrests after at least seven Russians — including the son of a close associate of President Vladimir Putin — were detained in recent weeks for flying drones or taking pictures near sensitive areas, prompting an investigation by the domestic intelligence service.

Norway and other countries are moving to secure critical infrastructure in the wake of the sabotage of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines. Since then, drone sightings have been reported in Norway’s vast offshore oil and gas fields and at Norwegian airports.

On Wednesday, Norway’s prime minister, Jonas Gahr Store, blamed “foreign intelligence” — and indirectly pointed a finger at Russia. “It is not acceptable that foreign intelligence is flying drones over Norwegian airports. Russians are not allowed to fly drones in Norway,” he said, according to Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

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Offshore oil and gas installations are central to Norway’s economy. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the country has become a critical supplier to energy-starved Europe.

Store made the remarks hours after a drone was spotted near the airport in Bergen, the country’s second-most-populous city, temporarily shutting down air traffic.

Authorities also disclosed the arrest of a dual Russian-British national who stands accused of flying a drone over Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, allegedly violating a rule that bars Russian citizens from flying drones in the country.

The man, Andrey Yakunin, 47, is the son of Vladimir Yakunin, a former president of Russian Railways and a confidant of Putin. The elder Yakunin was sanctioned by the United States in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.

When the younger Yakunin was arrested, police also seized drones and electronic devices, police prosecutor Anja Mikkelsen Indbjor told the Barents Observer. “The content from the drone is of great importance for the case.”

Andrey Yakunin, who was once featured in a Financial Times story about using his 88-foot sailing yacht to go skiing in Norway’s remote Arctic, reportedly asked the court to consider him a British citizen.

His lawyer, John Christian Elden, said in an email that his client is a British citizen, who studied, works and has family in Britain.

Elden did not deny that Yakunin piloted a drone but said doing so was illegal for Russian citizens, not British citizens.

Yakunin was arrested nearly a week after Norwegian police detained a Russian man for flying a drone above an airport in Tromso in northern Norway. On Friday, the authorities seized a “large” amount of photography equipment, including the drone and memory cards. Police also discovered photos of the airport in Kirkenes, a Norwegian town near the Russian border, and of a Norwegian military helicopter.

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A 50-year-old Russian man was detained the same day at Norway’s border with Russia after he was found to be carrying two drones and several electronic storage devices, according to the Associated Press. Four other Russians were detained days later for taking pictures of areas that are not allowed to be photographed, according to Norwegian officials.

Norwegian authorities have said that there is a heightened, but overall low risk of an attack on critical infrastructure, and that the purpose of the drones may be to create fear.

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