The son of the Dutch defense chief was killed Friday by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and the Taliban claimed they deliberately made him a high-profile victim of their deadly insurgency.
Lt. Dennis van Uhm, 23, was one of two Dutch soldiers killed in the explosion 7 miles northwest of Camp Holland, the Dutch military base in the restive southern province of Uruzgan, said Lt. Gen. Freek Meulman. Two more soldiers were injured, one critically.
Meulman was standing in for Gen. Peter van Uhm, who was only installed as defense chief on Thursday and would likely have delivered the news had his son not been among the victims.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed that the militants knew in advance about Van Uhm's movements.
"When he came out the Taliban planted a mine, which killed him," Ahmadi said in a phone call from an undisclosed location.
The Dutch government, however, rejected the claim.
"Our information is that there is no indication of any link between this cowardly deed and the fact that it was the son of the defense chief," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters in The Hague.
In country only two weeks
Balkenende and a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Robin Middel, refused to comment when asked if Van Uhm, who began his tour of duty in Afghanistan only about two weeks ago, received any special protection.
Wim van den Burg of the Federation of Military Personnel agreed it was very unlikely the Taliban deliberately picked off the defense chief's son.
"I doubt they even knew who Van Uhm was," Van den Burg said. "This is just propaganda for them."
However, Van Uhm's death raised questions about the wisdom of sending soldiers with such high propaganda value to fight in such a deadly conflict.
Earlier this year, Britain's Prince Harry had to be flown out of Afghanistan after news leaked out that he was posted there.
Harry spent almost 10 weeks in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, with his deployment kept secret by a deal between officials and media.
U.S. presidential candidate John McCain had a son serving in Iraq, and the son of Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the former second-in-command in Iraq, had his arm blown off in August 2004 while serving in Iraq.
Van den Burg said high profile troops should be no problem so long as their presence is not widely known.
"As soon as it's made public, it becomes a risk," he said.
Unpopular mission for Dutch
The attack raised the Dutch death toll in Afghanistan to 16 since the government made the unpopular decision to send 1,650 troops to fight in the NATO force in August 2006. In November, Balkenende's government again defied public opinion and decided — under pressure from NATO — to prolong the mission by two years until mid-2010, but only after pledges from allies such as France and Australia to send more troops to the region.
Van den Burg predicted the latest casualties would spark fresh criticism, of the government's decision.
"What you can't avoid is that every time there is an attack, there is more discussion," he said.
Van den Burg's organization, which represents thousands of troops, opposed extending the mission, saying it was stretching the Dutch military too thin, both in Afghanistan and at home.
Balkenende originally managed to convince a skeptical public that the Dutch mission would not only fight the Taliban but also devote time to building roads, schools and hospitals to help Afghanis recover from years of conflict.
Less rebuilding, more fighting
But as the Taliban has gained strength in the south, Dutch troops have been forced to spend more and more time fighting instead of focusing on reconstruction efforts.
Six years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the hard-line Taliban regime, hostilities show little sign of easing. Suicide attacks in Afghanistan spiked last year, with the Taliban launching more than 140 such missions — the highest number since the insurgency began after 2001. The fighting is most intense in the south of the country.
More than 1,000 people, mostly militants, have died this year in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and Western officials.
In The Hague, government and military officials were visibly upset by the latest deadly attack.
Balkenende called Van Uhm's death "an unprecedented tragedy" and said the weekly Dutch Cabinet meeting was briefly halted so ministers could reflect privately.
In the small town of Ermelo 50 miles east of Amsterdam, where both the slain soldiers had been stationed, local authorities lowered flags to half staff and opened a condolence register at the town hall for local residents to sign.
"It is particularly bitter that after yesterday's ceremonial changing of the military command we heard that this family — which yesterday was so happy — got such terrible news," Balkenende said.