Dutch helicopter crew taken prisoner in Libya

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Three Dutch soldiers have been captured by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya following a failed evacuation operation. A helicopter flew from the Dutch frigate HNLMS Tromp to the Libyan city of Sirte to pick up two evacuees, but when it landed the three-man crew was seized by an armed group loyal to the Libyan government.

The incident occurred towards the end of the day on Sunday but was kept quiet until now for security reasons.

The two would-be evacuees, a Dutchman and another European of unspecified nationality, were handed over to the Dutch embassy and have since left the country. The Dutchman, who works for Dutch engineering firm Royal Haskoning, arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday evening.

Parliament has asked the cabinet for clarification about the secret operation. However, a majority voted against an emergency debate as requested by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, most parties felt a letter would suffice.

Dutch Defence Ministry spokesman Otto Beeksma told Radio Netherlands Worldwide that intensive diplomatic negotiations are still taking place to free the three soldiers. He added that they are doing well under the circumstances. There is contact between the ministry and the soldiers and their families are being kept up to date with developments.

Top priority
Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the situation 'terrible'. He says a deliberate decision was made to keep the capture of the soldiers secret so as to allow talks with the Libyans to take place quietly.

"Our absolute top priority is that these three soldiers reach safety. They were deployed at high personal risk. The least we can do is to do everything to ensure that if people get in trouble that they are brought to safety again."

Extra risk
Military historian Christ Klep says he was surprised by the Dutch action. The city of Sirte - the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi - is still in the hands of the regime and not really safe for an evacuation attempt. It is also difficult to ensure the safety of the small Lynx helicopter which was used.

"It seems to suggest it may have been a diplomat, for instance, or somebody of special importance anyway. I would have thought you would want to avoid stirring things up in Libya and not attract attention to yourself. There must have been a reason they were prepared to take this extra risk. And it was a real risk because it's essentially impossible to defend one of those Lynx helicopters."

On the other hand, he can imagine the reasoning behind the choice - so as not to attract too much attention.

"Probably they had contacted the evacuees and it looked as though things were quiet enough at the time to carry out a discreet action."