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Arctic Island’s Boast: ‘We Almost Started World War III’

June 28, 1995

ANDOYA, Norway (AP) _ With little else to brag about, this arctic island announces its claim to fame in bold letters on a T-shirt: ``We Almost Started World War III.″

At least that’s what Russian President Boris Yeltsin seemed to think.

On Jan. 25, neighboring Russia reacted to a harmless research rocket launched from the island as though it were a hostile missile. The misunderstanding briefly focused attention on sleepy Andoya, site of Norway’s civilian Andoya Rocket Range off the northwestern coast of the NATO-member country.

Islanders, struggling with an economic slump, still can’t believe their luck. Some are now trying to capitalize on the rocket mixup and talking up Andoya’s tourism potential.

``It is, without question, the biggest thing that has ever happened in the history of Andoya,″ says Svein Spjelkavik, 30, who has sold more than 2,000 T-shirts.

The 6,500 residents of the rocky, weather-beaten but picturesque island 185-miles north of the Arctic Circle depend mainly on fishing.

Tourism consisted mostly of whale-watching safaris, which drew 9,500 tourists last year. After the incident, the island took out advertisements in national newspapers showing the Russian president’s picture and urging tourists to ``Do Like Yeltsin. Discover Andoya.″

``Tourism was up 15 percent in May from last May, which was also a very good month,″ says Spjelkavik, an island promoter who runs a tiny advertising agency.

While the rocket alone couldn’t be credited with the increase, ``it definitely fixed the name Andoya in people’s minds,″ he says.

Islanders hope tourism will help counter a slow decline _ the population has fallen 20 percent since the 1970s, according to Deputy Mayor and local Sheriff Jonni Helge Solsvik.

The end of the Cold War brought painful cuts at the island’s Norwegian Air force Base, once a key employer. Only about 20 people work full-time at the civilian rocket range, a sparse collection of wooden buildings, concrete bunkers and steel launch ramps by the sea.

Since it opened in 1962, the range has launched more than 600 rockets to study such things as the Northern Lights, pollution and ozone.

It was just another routine launch, this one for NASA, that caused all the commotion. Russia claimed a military missile from northern Europe was shot down over Russian territory. The Russian military went on alert, and Yeltsin said he opened his suitcase of nuclear launch codes for the first time to launch a counter-strike.

``Until the phones started to ring, we were all saying what a good shot it was,″ says Ivar Nyheim, the launch manager. It was especially confusing, he said, because Russia was informed in advance.

The rocket actually landed as planned in the Arctic Ocean, far from Russia.

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