OSLO, August 10, 2011 (AFP) - A helicopter stuck on the ground, a boat launched from a far-off port... Norwegian police tried Wednesday to meet growing criticism of their response to the July 22 island massacre, insisting they handled the situation in the best way possible.
"We are convinced that we did our best to handle the situation the way we understood it at the time," Oslo police staff chief Johan Fredriksen told a news conference.
On July 22, just over an hour passed between the first desperate calls to police from Utoeya, and the arrest on the island of Anders Behring Breivik by a special unit sent from Oslo, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) away.
By the time he was arrested, the 32-year-old rightwing extremist had killed 69 people, many of them teenagers, on the island where the ruling Labour Party's youth wing was hosting a summer camp.
Several media, along with some survivors and family members of the victims have blasted the police for taking too long and wasting valuable minutes, claiming a quicker response would have saved lives.
On Wednesday, Fredriksen defended the decision to send the special Delta unit by boat instead of helicopter, explaining that the helicopter available to the police was not large enough to carry armed troops.
He also rejected a report by the Dagsavisen daily that quoted anonymous police sources as saying a helicopter could at least have carried an elite sniper who could have quickly "neutralised" Behring Breivik and thus potentially saved lives.
"The police helicopter is a very advanced tool, used first and foremost as a command centre, a platform for observation, documentation and searching. But it is not made for armed interventions," he insisted.
Police were already dealing with a chaotic situation when the first calls of the Utoeya shooting began pouring in, as Behring Breivik shortly before had set off a car bomb outside government offices in Oslo, killing another eight people.
The helicopter team, which had been on vacation, had meanwhile offered to help right after the Oslo blast but had been told it would not be needed, only to be called in more than half an hour after Behring Breivik's arrest, the NTB news agency reported.
Tuesday evening, public broadcaster NRK also reported that the special Delta team had set off to the rescue in a rubber dinghy from a port 3.6 kilometres from Utoeya, when they could have left from one that was just 670 metres from the island.
"According to regular practice, it is the local police that chooses the point of departure it deems appropriate based on tactical considerations and available information at the time," Fredriksen explained.
The local police in the county of northern Buskerud, where Utoeya is located, did not respond to AFP's requests for comment.
The overloaded boat then suffered an engine breakdown and the officers onboard were forced to seize civilian vessels to continue towards the island.
According to the official version of the story, this did not however slow them down, since the civilan boats were faster and actually got them there 10 minutes faster than the police dinghy would have.
"The final evaluation has not yet been made," Fredriksen stressed, adding that "we are very humbled by the idea that it perhaps appears that some things could be improved."
Norway's centre-left government has appointed an independent commission, the make-up of which will be announced Friday, to probe the matter and to determine which lessons should be learned from the tragedy.
"We could perhaps have thought that a second emergency would happen (after the explosion)," Fredriksen acknowledged, "but until now, these kinds of things generally happen in the same city, almost in the same spot."
"We were facing a rather unique and inconceivable scenario on Utoeya," he said.