OSLO (Reuters) - Seven Greenpeace protesters have been removed from a Statoil oil rig in the Norwegian Arctic where the company plans to drill the world's most northerly oil well, the energy firm and the environmentalist group said on Thursday.
Greenpeace, which calls Statoil an 'Arctic aggressor', said plans to drill in the Hoop area of the Barents Sea threaten Bear Island, an uninhabited wildlife sanctuary which is home to rare species and occasionally to polar bears.
Oil firms are drilling further north than ever as the Arctic ice retreats and a relaxing of the law allows companies to work in areas where winter ice was common just decades ago.
Fifteen activists boarded the Transocean Spitsbergen in the early hours of Tuesday. Five were taken back to shore voluntarily, three returned to a nearby Greenpeace ship and the rest were removed by police on Thursday.
Norwegian authorities had to get permission to board from the Marshall Islands, where the rig is registered, as it was traveling through international waters.
"The activists on board the Transocean Spitsbergen are now in the hands of Norwegian police," Statoil said in a statement.
Greenpeace Norway said in a statement that the removal of the seven activists - from Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Philippines and Sweden - was peaceable.
One Finnish woman among them had been in the group of 30 Greenpeace activists detained by Russian authorities for two months for climbing aboard an Arctic oil rig last September.
The Statoil rig will now travel to its planned drilling site, some 23 nautical miles (43 km) further north, but will not yet be able to conduct full drilling operations.
"Statoil has a permit to start the drilling operations, but awaits a final decision on a Greenpeace appeal to the Norwegian Ministry of climate and environment before drilling into oil-bearing layers," said the firm.
It is as yet unclear how long the appeal could take.
(this story corrects in the eighth paragraph to man, not woman)
(Reporting by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Louise Ireland)