WASHINGTON — Dutch government officials reacted angrily Friday to claims by a retired U.S. general that Dutch forces were overrun in Srebrenica in 1995 in part because of the presence of gay soldiers.
At a U.S. congressional hearing Thursday on allowing gay soldiers to serve openly in the military, former Supreme Allied Commander John Sheehan said there was a link between having homosexuals in the Dutch forces and the massacre at Srebrenica.
However Netherlands' caretaker Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop said Friday the claim was "damaging" and not worthy of a soldier. "I don't want to waste any more words on it," he said.
And Gen. Henk van den Breemen, Dutch Chief of Staff at the time of the Srebrenica genocide, called Sheehan's comments "total nonsense."
Bosnian Serb forces overran lightly armed Dutch soldiers in the United Nations-designated enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995 and subsequently massacred more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys.
Reports on the hearing said Sheehan blamed a post-Cold War effort by European nations to "socialize" their forces by, among other things, letting gays serve.
"That led to a force that was ill-equipped to go to war. The case in point that I'm referring to is when the Dutch were required to defend Srebrenica against the Serbs," Sheehan said.
"The battalion was under-strength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off and executed them."
Gay soldiers 'part of the problem'
Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and other nations believed there was no longer a need for an active combat capability in the militaries, he said. "They declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military — that includes the unionization of their militaries, it includes open homosexuality."
Carl Levin, chairman of the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee, asked: "Did the Dutch leaders tell you it was because there were gay soldiers there?"
"Yes, they did. They included that as part of the problem," Sheehan said, according to a webcast on the website of the committee.
Sheehan said European militaries deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focused on peacekeeping because "they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back."
Levin said it may be the case that some militaries have focused on peacekeeping to the detriment of their war-fighting skills.
"But I think that any effort to connect that failure on the part of the Dutch to the fact that they have homosexuals, or did allow homosexuals, I think is totally off-target," said Levin, a proponent of ending restrictions on gays serving in the U.S. armed forces.
"The Dutch military, as you point out, were peacekeepers and not peace-enforcers. I agree with that," said Levin.
"But what the heck that has to do with the issue before us is what mystifies me."
The Dutch Defence Ministry issued a statement calling Sheehan's claims "absolute nonsense" and adding that gay Dutch soldiers routinely cooperate with the U.S. military in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Renee Jones-Bos, the Dutch ambassador to the United States, said in a statement, "I couldn't disagree more" with Sheehan, adding there was no evidence of his claims in the extensive record of research on Srebrenica.
Dutch press agency ANP quoted the head of the military union AFMP, Wim van den Burg, as saying Sheehan's comments were "ridiculous" and "out of the realm of fiction".
The events in Srebrenica remain a sensitive subject in the Netherlands, where a six-year investigation into the massacre led to the government's fall in 2002.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.