KABUL, Afghanistan – A roadside bomb attack on a patrol of Dutch soldiers killed the son of the Netherlands' top military officer on Friday, a day after his father took command of the country's armed forces, officials said.
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 restive Uruzgan province, spokesman Lt. Gen. Freek Meulman said. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack.
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende called Van Uhm's death "an unprecedented tragedy" and said the weekly Dutch cabinet meeting was briefly halted so ministers could reflect privately.
There was no immediate comment from Gen. Peter van Uhm, who took up a new job as the overall commander of the Dutch military in a ceremony outside parliament in The Hague on Thursday.
"This morning I asked Gen. Van Uhm, the military commander, to concentrate on his personal situation," Defense Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop told reporters at a hastily called news conference in the Netherlands. "The contrast between yesterday's festivities ... could not be starker."
The Dutch are fighting alongside U.S, British and Canadian troops at the forefront of NATO's battles with the Taliban and other insurgents in southern Afghanistan. Other NATO nations such as Germany, Italy and Spain are based in the relatively safe north and west and have been criticized for not sending their combat troops to help out in a fight.
Friday's casualties bring the death toll of Dutch soldiers to 16 since the Netherlands began contributing combat forces to the NATO mission in Afghanistan in August 2006. The Dutch have 1,650 troops in southern Afghanistan.
In the small eastern town of Ermelo, where both the slain soldiers had been stationed, local authorities lowered flags to half mast 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.
Two other soldiers were wounded in the attack on the Dutch soldiers' vehicle, which was returning to base after a reconnaissance mission, the Dutch military said.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast, and said the militants will continue their attacks against the Dutch troops.
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.
Meulman dismissed that possibility.
"There is no reason to believe that the roadside bomb attack was directed at Lt. Van Uhm," Meulman said.
The Dutch parliament debated for months before supporting the government's decision to send troops to Uruzgan province, one of the strongholds of the Taliban.
The mission gained grudging public support because it was intended to mix its fighting with reconstruction of roads, schools and hospitals.
Last year, the government again agonized over whether to extend the mission by two years and called on NATO allies to do more to shoulder the burden in the south.
Balkenende agreed last November to prolong the mission only after several other countries, including France and Australia, pledged to contribute more troops.
The Dutch government came under strong pressure from NATO not to withdraw its troops, as the alliance feared that it could have sparked a domino effect, with other countries also pulling out their forces.
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.
Over 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.
The attack that killed Van Uhm came a day after a suicide attack in southwestern Nimroz province killed 24 people and wounded more than 30 others — mostly civilians — in the latest in a series of bloody strikes blamed on Taliban militants.
Separately, another roadside blast hit a convoy of a private security firm in central Logar province, killing three Afghan security guards and wounding another, provincial police chief Mustapha Khan said.