Dutch trying to secure release of soldiers in Libya

4th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

The Netherlands said it was using "every diplomatic angle" to secure the release of three soldiers captured in Libya during an unauthorised rescue operation whose wisdom was questioned on Friday.

The three were taken captive in Sirte in the north of Libya on Sunday in a botched attempt to evacuate two civilians, a Dutch engineer and one other European, by navy helicopter with no backup on board.

"We are doing our utmost to get them back and are using every diplomatic angle we can use," Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a post-cabinet press conference, insisting he could not elaborate until the three were home safe.

As the press and experts questioned the wisdom of the operation, for which the government concedes it had no Libyan authorisation, Rutte stressed that "the focus now must be on getting them back safely ... as quickly as possible.

"As long as I am of the opinion that it is better for the process of getting them back safely that the cabinet and I remain mum, we will do so."

Earlier, the defence ministry said "intensive negotiations" were underway to secure the liberty of the three: two navy pilots, one of them a woman, and a loadmaster.

Dutch television on Thursday night broadcast images taken from Libyan television of the three soldiers, apparently in good health.

Their capture first became known on Thursday, having been kept quiet "for security reasons", according to the Dutch government, which has since been frugal with details.

Defence ministry spokesman Otte Beeksma said Libyan soldiers on Sunday prevented the Lynx helicopter from taking off from Syrte with the three Dutch marines and two civilians on board.

The civilians were later handed over to the Dutch embassy in Tripoli and returned to the Netherlands on Wednesday.

"This was a frivolous, careless action in a secured Kadhafi area, without backup from special forces," Ko Colijn, acting director of the Clingendael international relations think-tank's security programme, told AFP.

"It has been hugely damaging for the Netherlands and NATO."

As the evacuation had not been authorised, Libya was within its rights to hold and charge the three, said Colijn.

"As long as Kadhafi remains in Libya, he will not free them quickly. He can use them every day to threaten the West and NATO. He can use them to force the Netherlands to pay a price, perhaps literally in the form of money, or in the form of undertakings not to take part in any Western-imposed no-fly zone or other military intervention."

"We are perplexed, the Netherlands is not a country of cowboys," a European diplomat told AFP in The Hague. "Perhaps it was an error of judgment. They gave Kadhafi a golden bargaining chip."

Libyan news agency Jana reported that the Dutch helicopter was "full of arms", and said it entered Libyan airspace in violation of international law.

Dutch daily Trouw said the botched evacuation has "embarrassed" the Dutch government and would leave it diplomatically "broken-winged" until the three are freed.

"Botched evacuation defies all tactical prescriptions," headlined the Volkskrant.

© 2011 AFP

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