By MIKE CORDER
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 1:36 PM
THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Armed forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi captured three Dutch marines and their helicopter during a botched evacuation mission near a stronghold of the Libyan leader, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.
Libyan authorities are still holding the marines five days after they were seized Sunday by armed men after landing near Sirte in a Lynx helicopter from the navy ship HMS Tromp. The ship was anchored off the Libyan coast to help evacuations from the conflict-torn country, spokesman Otte Beeksma told The Associated Press.
Two Europeans, one Dutch and one whose nationality was not released, were also captured. They were handed over unharmed to the Dutch embassy in Tripoli early Thursday and have left Libya, the ministry said.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his government authorized the mission.
Dutch officials are in "intensive negotiations" with Gadhafi's government to secure the marines' release, he said.
"We have also been in contact with the crewmen involved," Beeksma said. "They are doing well under the circumstances and we hope they will be released as quickly as possible."
Dutch state news cited the consulting firm Royal Haskoning as saying the Dutch man the captured soldiers had been trying to rescue is an engineer for their firm, but it did not give any information about the other. The company could not immediately be reached for comment.
Defense Minister Hans Hillen welcomed the news that the two Europeans were safe and had left Libya. "Everything is being done to also get the crew safely out of the country as soon as possible," he said in a statement.
Rutte said news of the men's capture was kept quiet to assist talks on their release. Dutch daily De Telegraaf first reported their capture in its Thursday edition.
"These are situations that benefit from total secrecy because then you can carry out discussions in peace to ensure these people get home safely," Rutte told national broadcaster NOS.
"It is terrible for the crew of the Lynx helicopter," he said. "Everything is being done to make sure the crew gets home."
The marines' identities were not released.
On Wednesday, Gadhafi warned the U.S. and other Western powers not to intervene in the chaos enveloping his country. He vowed to turn Libya into "another Vietnam," and said any foreign troops coming into his country "will be entering hell and they will drown in blood."
Military expert Christ Klep from the Clingendael think tank said the marines' capture was a coup for Gadhafi, who could possibly use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West.
"Yes, that is a very serious consideration. They are in military uniform," he said. "It's an easy situation for Gadhafi to exploit."
Associated Press writer Toby Sterling in Amsterdam contributed to this report.