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Dutch defense minister resigns over deaths of Mali peacekeepers

The Dutch defence minister resigned over the deaths of two soldiers during mortar training while on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali in 2016.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert stepped down on Tuesday after a Dutch Safety Board report published last week said the ministry let safety and medical standards decline in its pursuit of strategic goals.

“I acknowledge that – at times – safety risks were inadequately identified or assessed,” Hennis-Plasschaert said. “I am politically responsible and am taking that responsibility.”

General Tom Middendorp, the Netherlands’ Chief of Defence, also resigned, a decision which Hennis-Plasschaert said was his alone.

The two soldiers died in Kidal, in northwest Mali in July 2016 when a 60mm mortar shell exploded inside its tube during training. A third soldier was critically injured. The Dutch Safety Board said the military had been using defective munitions that were incorrectly stored and had not been tested.

The board said the shells were bought in 2006 “with the help of the U.S. Department of Defence amid a pressure of time” to supply a Dutch contingent to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

The ministry “omitted to carry out its own procedures and controls as it assumed the U.S. Army was already using the ammunition and had carried out safety tests,” the board said.

The report found the shell had been correctly loaded but it exploded as it dropped into the mortar tube, instead of on firing. The shell “had weak spots in its design which allowed water to penetrate.” This combined with heat due to incorrect storage meant the munitions was “unstable and shock-sensitive.”

The Netherlands has been part of the United Nations stabilisation mission in Mali (Minusma) since April 2014, deploying around 400 troops, four Apache and three Chinook helicopters. Its forces are primarily deployed in reconnaissance, police training and intelligence.

Minusma has been described as the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world.

The U.N. says attacks against UN peacekeepers, French troops and government forces by militant Islamists have doubled recently, with 75 attacks between June and September.

More than 12,000 military personnel and 1,350 civilians are employed by Minusma, at an annual cost of $1 billion.

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