THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch government is sending 368 troops to join a U.N. peacekeeping force in the conflict-torn West African nation of Mali, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced Friday.
In a letter sent to Parliament, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said the Dutch contingent will include 220 troops, including 90 special forces commandos, who will take part in intelligence gathering and operate four Apache helicopters. Ten police officers and a small group of civilian support staff also will join the mission.
Sending soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping missions is an emotionally charged decision for the Dutch, who suffered a national trauma when the country's soldiers were unable to prevent Bosnian Serb forces from storming the Srebrenica enclave in Bosnia in July 1995, and killing some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the worst massacre on European soil since World War II.
Rutte said the decision to deploy Dutch troops was a tough one, but that "all lessons from previous missions have been learned."
Mali was plunged into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over half of the country's north. Months later, the Tuaregs were kicked out by Islamic jihadists, many linked to al-Qaida. When the Islamists started moving into government-controlled areas in Mali's south, France launched a military offensive on Jan. 11 to oust them. Remnants of the Islamists still remain, however.
Rutte said it was in the Netherlands' interest to join an international crackdown on a looming threat in northern Africa.
"We want to contribute to preventing a further proliferation of terrorism and serious criminality at the southern border of Europe," he said.
In his letter to Parliament, Timmermans said northern Mali "has become a breeding ground for extremism and a sanctuary for terrorist training."
France has more than 3,000 troops in Mali, and French President Francois Hollande has said that a drawdown to 1,000 troops will be delayed slightly from the end of the year to the end of January 2014.
A new U.N. peacekeeping force known as MINUSMA took over from a 6,000-member African-led mission in Mali on July 1 with an authorized strength of 11,200 military personnel and a mandate to help restore democracy and stabilize the northern half of the country. The Netherlands will become the 29th country to contribute soldiers to that force.
Most of the Dutch contingent will be based in the city of Gao.
Bert Koenders, a former Dutch government minister who is now the U.N.'s top envoy in Mali, said last month that recent attacks by armed groups and terrorists highlighted the need to stabilize Mali's volatile north.