Survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre have opened a civil suit against the Dutch government, saying Dutch peacekeepers should have protected the victims of Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
"They did not prevent the murder of thousands of civilians," Marco Gerritsen, the group's lawyer, told the Hague court on Monday, where the case is finally being heard, reported the AFP news agency.
The suit was first brought in 2007 by victims' group the Mothers of Srebrenica, in connection with the massacre during Bosnia's bloody three-year war in the early 1990s.
The tiny Muslim enclave of Srebrenica was under UN protection until July 11, 1995 when it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic.
Mladic's troops brushed aside the lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers, called the Dutch battalion or Dutchbat, in the "safe area" where thousands of Muslims from surrounding villages had gathered for protection.
In the subsequent days, almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped in mass graves.
Quest for justice
The Mothers of Srebrenica, which represents some 6,000 widows and victims' relatives, have been seeking justice for several years for the massacre, which the UN's highest International Court of Justice has ruled was genocide.
"The Mothers of Srebrenica want the responsibility of the Dutch to be recognised and then compensation, even though this is less important to them," Semir Guzin, another victims' lawyer, told AFP.
"Of course, this procedure is not going to give us our sons and husbands back, but will bring a bit of justice," Hatidza Mehmedovic, one of about a dozen representatives of the Mothers present at the hearing, told AFP.
The Dutch state's lawyer argued that the Netherlands had no direct control over the Dutchbat unit during the peacekeeping operation.
"It is about Dutch soldiers, but Dutch soldiers wearing blue helmets and therefore completely under UN control," Gert-Jan Houtzagers told the court.
"Dutchbat did what it could with a handful of men," he said. "They tried to protect as many refugees as possible."
"That didn't work, but it's twisting the facts to say they [Dutchbat] led people like lambs to the slaughter," Houtzagers added.
Dutch courts have previously refused to hear a request by the Mothers of Srebrenica to prosecute the United Nations for the killings, saying the international organisation had immunity.
Last year the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights agreed with that immunity decision.
The civil proceedings against the Dutch state being heard on Monday had been put on hold pending the outcome of the case against the UN.