Sweden’s liberal pandemic strategy questioned as Stockholm death toll mounts

By Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A spike in novel coronavirus infections and deaths in Stockholm has raised questions about Sweden’s decision to fight the outbreak without resorting to the lockdowns that have left much of Europe at a standstill.

Governments across Europe have closed schools and taken draconian measures to limit exposure to possible carriers with Germany for example enforcing bans on more than two people meeting in public.

Among Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, Denmark has closed its borders and shut its schools, as has Norway, while Finland has isolated its main urban region.

Yet Swedes are able to go to restaurants, get a haircut and send their children to school even as the number of confirmed cases and deaths have mounted, above all in Stockholm which accounts for more than half the fatalities.

An analysis of smartphone location data showed that while visits to public places has fallen steeply in most European countries, Sweden is bucking the trend.

But Sweden’s liberal approach, which aims to minimise disruption to social and economic life, is coming under fire as the epidemic spreads in the capital.

“We don’t have a choice, we have to close Stockholm right now,” Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis at the Karolinska Institute, told Reuters.

She is one of around 2,300 academics who signed an open letter to the government at the end of last month calling for tougher measures to protect the healthcare system.

“We must establish control over the situation, we cannot head in to a situation where we get complete chaos. No one has tried this route, so why should we test it first in Sweden, without informed consent?” she said.

Sweden reported 612 new cases on Friday, bringing the total to around 6,000. The death toll has reached 333, with fatalities now running at about 25-30 a day, according to the Swedish Health Agency.


There are growing signs the virus is spreading at elderly care homes, again mainly in the capital, where some staff at hospitals and nursing homes have publicly warned of a lack of protective equipment such as masks.

Facing what a local official has called “a storm” of COVID-19 cases, Stockholm has opened a field hospital at a convention complex south of the city centre and called on anyone with medical training to help care for the sick.

At a news conference this week centre-left Prime Minister Stefan Lofven fielded questions over whether the rising number of cases at Sweden’s nursing homes was evidence of a failing strategy.

“I don’t think it is a sign of that. This is what things look like around Europe,” he said. “We have said all along that things will get worse before they get better.”

Sweden has focused on isolating and treating the sick rather than closing down swathes of society.

Gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned, high schools and universities have moved teaching online and people have been told not to take unnecessary trips, all quite low-key measures in a European context.

The public face of Sweden’s pandemic fight, Health Agency Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, only months ago a little known civil servant but now rivalling the prime minister for publicity, has questioned how effectively lockdowns can be enforced over time.

“It is important to have a policy that can be sustained over a longer period, meaning staying home if you are sick, which is our message,” said Tegnell, who has received both threats and fan mail over the country’s handling of the crisis.

“Locking people up at home won’t work in the longer term,” he said. “Sooner or later people are going to go out anyway.”

(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Giles Elgood)

Uzbekistan says told West that Stockholm attack suspect was IS recruit

People lay flowers near the crime scene at Ahlens department store at the pedestrian street Drottninggatan in central Stockholm, Sweden, April 12, 2017. TT NEWS AGENCY/ Fredrik Sandberg via REUTERS

TASHKENT (Reuters) – Uzbekistan’s security services warned a western ally before last week’s deadly truck attack in Stockholm that the suspected perpetrator was an Islamic State recruit, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said on Friday.

Kamilov told reporters that Rakhmat Akilov had been recruited by the jihadist group after he left the Central Asian nation in 2014 and settled in Sweden.

“According to the information that we have, he actively urged his compatriots to travel to Syria in order to fight at Islamic State’s side,” Kamilov said, adding that Akilov had used online messaging services.

“Earlier (before the attack), information on Akilov’s criminal actions had been passed by security services to one of our Western partners so that the Swedish side could be informed.”

Kamilov did not identify the intermediary country or organization.

A spokesman for Sweden’s security police declined to comment on Kamilov’s statement. The police said last week they had intelligence on Akilov in 2016 that they could not verify.

An Uzbek security source said on Wednesday that Akilov had tried to travel to Syria in 2015 to join IS but was detained at the Turkish-Syrian border and deported back to Sweden.

The source added that Uzbekistan authorities had in February put him on a wanted list of people suspected of religious extremism.

(Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Additional reporting by Bjorn Rundstrom in Stockholm; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Katya Golubkova and John Stonestreet)

Suspect in Stockholm truck attack admits terrorist crime

Policemen guard next to the court before the detention hearing of suspect in Friday's attack in Stockholm, Sweden April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Anna Ringstrom

By Anna Ringstrom and Johannes Hellstrom

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A failed asylum-seeker accused of ramming a truck into a Stockholm crowd last week, killing four people, has confessed to committing a terrorist crime, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Uzbekistan man Rakhmat Akilov, wanted for deportation at the time of Friday’s attack, made his first court appearance, entering the heavily guarded courtroom with a green sweater over his head and flanked by his lawyer and a translator.

Police say they believe the 39-year-old hijacked a beer truck and drove it into a busy pedestrian street in the Swedish capital before crashing into a department store.

Two Swedes, a British man and a Belgian woman were killed in the attack. Fifteen were injured. Eight people remain in hospital, including two in intensive care.

The attack has shattered any sense Swedes had of being insulated from the militant violence that has hit other parts of Europe, but has prompted defiance from Prime Minister Stefan Lofven who says Sweden will remain an open, tolerant society.

Akilov, who was asked by the judge to remove the sweater from his head, made no comment at the start of the hearing. His lawyer, Johan Eriksson, told the court that his client had admitted the crime. The judge then ordered the hearing to proceed behind closed doors.

Eriksson later told reporters outside the court that Akilov has described his motives to authorities, but the judge had ordered the lawyer not to discuss details of the case in public.

“He has not just confessed. He has provided information, he is answering questions,” Eriksson said.

Akilov was arrested just hours after the truck attack on the highest level of suspicion in the Swedish legal system. He had already been wanted by police for failing to comply with a deportation order after being denied permanent residency.

The judge on Tuesday remanded Akilov in custody for a month. Police have said it could take up to a year to complete the initial investigation into the attack.

Police say Akilov has expressed sympathies with extremist organisations. Security services have said that he had figured in intelligence reports but they had not viewed him as a militant threat.

A Facebook page appearing to belong to him showed he was following a group called “Friends of Libya and Syria”, dedicated to exposing “terrorism of the imperialistic financial capitals” of the United States, Britain and Arab “dictatorships”.

Legal documents show Akilov had asked for Eriksson to be replaced by a Sunni Muslim lawyer, but the court denied his request.

“We have a good relationship and we are working together in this case,” Eriksson said on Tuesday.

Sweden’s prosecution authority said on Tuesday it had revoked the arrest of a second, unidentified suspect in connection with the truck attack.

However, this man would remain in custody due to an earlier decision that he be expelled from Sweden, the authority said.

“According to the prosecutor, the suspicions have weakened and there is, therefore, no ground to apply for a detention order,” it said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Stockholm Newsroom; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Mark Bendeich)

Sweden on alert for possible Islamic State attack in Capital

Sweden's flag is seen near Stockholm Cathedral in Gamla Stan or the Old Town district of Stockholm

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden has received intelligence about a possible attack on the capital by Islamic State militants, local media reported on Tuesday, and security services said they were investigating undisclosed “information”.

Newspapers Aftonbladet and Expressen as well as public broadcaster Swedish Radio, citing unnamed sources, reported the information was related to the threat of an attack, possibly in the capital Stockholm.

Expressen reported Swedish security police (SAPO) had received intelligence from Iraq that seven or eight Islamic State fighters had entered Sweden with the intention of attacking civilian targets.

A security police spokeswoman said she would not comment on any specific details of a threat, but said it was working with regular police as well as national and international partners.

“Security police are working intensively to assess received information, and it is of such a nature that our judgment is that we can not dismiss it,” she said.

Sweden has not been hit by a large-scale militant attack, but a man is currently is awaiting a verdict for allegedly building a suicide bomb with the intent of staging an attack in Sweden. In 2010 a suicide bomber died when his bomb belt went off prematurely in central Stockholm.

The Swedish terror threat level remained unchanged at level three on a five-grade scale, the spokeswoman said.

Norwegian public broadcaster NRK reported Norwegian police were assessing whether or not the Norwegian royal family should proceed with a planned trip to Stockholm this weekend to celebrate the Swedish king’s 70th birthday, given the supposed terror threat.

(Reporting by Helena Soderpalm and Daniel Dickson, additional reporting by Terje Solsvik; Editing by Alistair Scrutton Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)