BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Two Dutch peacekeepers died in a helicopter crash during a military exercise in northern Mali on Tuesday, Dutch and United Nations officials said.
The two-man crew of the Apache helicopter performed a "hard landing" during the drills near Gao, in the country's north, the U.N. force said in a statement.
Dutch Defense Chief Gen. Tom Middendorp called the incident a crash and said "everything points to this being an accident, but we can't yet confirm that." He said an investigation into the cause was underway.
The crash killed the two Dutch troops aboard who were members of the U.N. peacekeeping force trying to stabilize the country. One survived the crash but died later of his injuries at a French field hospital, Middendorp told a news conference in The Hague.
He identified the victims as 30-year-old Capt. Rene Zeetsen and 26-year-old First Lt. Ernst Mollinger.
Another Dutch Apache also on the drills landed and tried to help the men while a French attack helicopter guarded the scene from the air and Dutch special forces secured the area on the ground, Middendorp said.
"The Netherlands is profoundly touched by this terrible accident," Prime Minister Mark Rutte told national broadcaster NOS. The Dutch "are doing important work there. It is also dangerous work."
The deaths could complicate new U.S.-led efforts to bring Europe back into U.N. peacekeeping in greater numbers. In a speech this month, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said U.N. peacekeeping needs European militaries "more than ever." She said European nations, which 20 years ago contributed more than 40 percent of U.N. peacekeepers around the world, now provide less than 7 percent and singled out the Dutch contribution in Mali for praise.
The Netherlands has 450 military personnel, four Apache and three Chinook helicopters in Mali as part of the U.N. mission.
Mali's northern half came under control of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention in early 2013 scattered the extremists, but the country is growing increasingly unstable, and U.N. troops are struggling to maintain peace. Extremists have repeatedly targeted the force.
Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Associated Press reporter Cara Anna contributed from the United Nations.