A former US general has apologised for suggesting that gay soldiers were partly responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Gen John Sheehan, a former NATO commander and senior Marine officer, told a Senate hearing earlier this month that Dutch military officials told him that allowing gay soldiers the Dutch army had led to poor morale, which led to a failure to prevent the genocide of 8,000 Muslims.

Following anger from Dutch officials and an outcry from gay groups, he sent a letter of apology, Dutch government spokeswoman Anne van Pinxteren told AFP.

Gen Sheehan had claimed that former chief of staff of the Dutch army General Henk van den Breemen was one of the military leaders who told him gays were partly to blame for a weaker army. He was arguing against lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the US military.

His remarks were refuted by Gen Van den Breemen, who said they were nonsense.

Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende said the remarks were disgraceful while gay group Pink Army announced it wanted to sue Gen Sheehan for defamation.

In the letter of apology, seen by AFP, he wrote to Van den Breemen: “I am sorry that my recent public recollection of those discussions of 15 years ago inaccurately reflected your thinking on some specific social issues in the military.

“It is also regrettable that I allowed you to be pulled into a public debate.”

The massacre happened when Dutch peacekeepers found themselves outnumbered by Serb forces when protecting Muslim families in Srebenica. They did not intervene when the Serbs separated the families and led the men off to be executed.

Gen Sheehan added that no individual soldiers were to blame for the massacre.

Pink Army now says it is unlikely to progress with the lawsuit as an apology was “the most important thing”.

Founder Peter Schouten said: “The reactions and the publicity in the Netherlands and in the United States have obviously put so much pressure on him that he’s had to retract his words.

“The way things developed around this incident shows that the fight for human rights not only is a cause for government but that interest groups and individual citizens have a role to play in it. This enhances the chance of success against injustice. We have to find a way of getting along with one another.”