Finland's 'Soldiers of Odin' face off against huggy ladies

Kemi (Finland) (AFP) - Fierce-looking squads calling themselves the Soldiers of Odin have been patrolling Finnish streets in recent months claiming to protect locals from asylum seekers, but lately they've been challenged by an unexpected crew: smiling women serving up hugs.

In the small town of Kemi, an hour's drive south of the Arctic Circle, a group of stocky men in black bomber jackets brave freezing wintry weather of minus 15 degrees Celsius (five degrees Fahrenheit) to walk the streets, insisting they're needed to protect local women and children from what their website calls "Islamic intruders."

The handful of Odins -- led by founder Mika Ranta, a 29-year-old truck driver who named the group after an ancient Norse and Germanic god -- keep their eyes peeled for trouble, though no asylum seekers are seen out on the streets when AFP greets the patrol.

The group claims volunteer patrols are active in at least 20 Finnish towns, clad in the group's black hats and jackets emblazoned with "S.O.O." for Soldiers of Odin.

But it was here in Kemi, a working class town known for its forestry industry, that the Odins first began their patrols in October.

They started after an unprecedented flow of mostly Iraqi migrants arrived via the Swedish-Finnish border, many of them crossing through Kemi on their way to towns further south in Finland.

Finland, a country of 5.4 million people, received over 32,000 asylum seekers last year, one of the highest amounts in Europe per capita.

The Odins -- made up mostly of working class men aged around 20 to 40 -- claim the influx has led to a rise in crime.

Police disagree, but Ranta is undeterred and insists their presence will prove necessary in a few months when crowds hit the lakeside beaches in summer and "rape attacks will be starting," he told AFP.

- Neo-Nazi links -

Finnish media have reported widely on the Odins' links to neo-Nazi movements.

Ranta, who was convicted of a 2005 racially-motivated attack against two immigrants, admits readily to being a neo-Nazi -- "Yes, I am" -- but insists his ideology and membership in the Finnish Resistance Movement has nothing to do with the patrols.

"Just because I am, as the founder or whatever, it doesn't mean the whole group are (neo-Nazis)... We're just a street patrol group, so why are people making it into something else?," Ranta argued.

The Odins claim to have around 600 members in Finland, and support groups emerging in the Nordic countries and the US.

Neither the police nor the patrols have reported any violent incidents so far, but authorities are unhappy about their presence.

Finnish police have repeatedly insisted they have no right to intervene.

And the government has condemned their existence, with Interior Minister Petteri Orpo denouncing their "extremist features".

- 'Permission to hug' -

A group of women are now intent on showing that Finland is a tolerant, safe place.

The Sisters of Kyllikki -- named after a joyful female character of Finnish mythology who likes to dance -- are mothers, pensioners and professionals who met up on Facebook.

They're countering the Odin patrols by greeting strangers with a smile and a ticket granting them "permission to hug."

In Kemi, some of the passers-by look alarmed when the women approach: talking to strangers, let alone hugging them, is unusual in taciturn Finland where respecting others' privacy is highly valued.

But the women believe fear and insecurity can be overcome with simple acts of kindness.

"We're here to show that Kemi is safe and peaceful and people should be nicer to each other," explained Katja Hietala, the head of the Kemi branch.

A local woman in her mid-20s said she was supportive of the Sisters and the migrants.

"I'm more afraid of the Soldiers of Odin because they themselves are a lot scarier than anyone else who walks about here," she said, refusing to give her name for fear of reprisals on social media.

The Sisters are not the only ones challenging the Odins.

Recently a troupe of clowns calling themselves "Loldiers of Odin" -- using the online acronym for Laughing Out Loud LOL -- has turned up to mock the Odins during their patrols in Tampere in central Finland, sporting colourful garb and dancing around the patrols in a humourous spoof.

But back in Kemi, a black French player for the local football team PS Kemi Kings, David Bitsindou, says the atmosphere in town has been no laughing matter.

A teammate warned him about the Odin patrols, but, having lived in Kemi for two years, he trusts locals to recognise him.

"It's a little sad (what they do) because the police are also there to do their job," Bitsindou, the son of Congolese parents, told AFP.

Others welcome the patrols.

Mervi Sotisaari, 56, says she was followed around by an asylum seeker who wanted to go out with her.

"I wouldn't mind if they (the Odins) would walk around more often at night... As long as they do it properly. It's not pleasant to live in fear," she said.