Netherlands to send peacekeepers, helicopters to Mali

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Netherlands said on Friday it would send combat helicopters and around 380 troops to boost a U.N.-led peacekeeping mission trying to stabilize Mali after a coup and an Islamist incursion.

The U.N. force is supposed to take over from an African mission, and French forces who intervened in Mali in January to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who Paris feared could mount attacks in the region and beyond.

But the United Nations last month said the new force, known as MINUSMA, was short of troops and helicopters.

"We believe Dutch participation increases the chance of success of the U.N. mission," Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in The Hague Friday after a weekly Cabinet meeting.

"If nothing is done, they (the militants) will be able to threaten not only other African countries ... but also Europe," Rutte added.

Peacekeeping missions have been a sensitive issue in the Netherlands since Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent Serbian forces from overrunning the U.N. "safe haven" of Srebrenica in July 1995. Around 7,500 Muslim men and boys were massacred.

The Mali operation will be the Dutch forces' most significant foreign military operation since they were pulled out of Afghanistan in 2010 after political support for the mission collapsed.

Mali imploded last year when Tuareg separatist rebels took up arms in the desert north, triggering a coup by soldiers angry over the government's handling of the rebellion.

Islamists took advantage of the chaos and seized the north, stoking fears in the West that the zone would become a launch pad for militant attacks and safe haven for criminal gangs operating alongside the various rebel groups.

Although the French defeated Islamists who overran Mali's army last year, experts have warned that many may simply have gone to ground, regrouped and sought opportunities to strike as France reduces it presence.

The Dutch peacekeepers would mostly gather and analyze intelligence for the mission, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

They would stay at least until 2015 and possibly longer, said Rutte, adding the Dutch portion of the mission will cost about 65 million euros ($88.37 million)in the first year, and between 40-50 million euros a year thereafter.

So far there are only 5,200 troops on the ground out of the U.N.-led force's full strength of 12,600.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Sara Webb and Andrew Heavens)