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Several killed after Israeli commandos storm aid flotilla

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of
ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the
blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday, killing nine passengers in a
botched raid that provoked international outrage and a diplomatic
crisis.
Dozens of activists and six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the
bloody predawn confrontation in international waters. The violent
takeover dealt yet another blow to Israel's international image,
already tarnished by war crimes accusations in Gaza and its
3-year-old blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu canceled a much-anticipated
meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday in a
sign of just how gravely Israel viewed the international uproar. In
Canada, Netanyahu announced he was rushing home.
Israel said it opened fire after its commandos were attacked by
knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers
after they rappelled from a helicopter to board one of the vessels.
Late Monday, it released a grainy black-and-white video that it
said supported its version of events.
Reaction was swift and harsh, with a massive protest in Turkey,
Israel's longtime Muslim ally, which unofficially supported the
mission. Ankara announced it would recall its ambassador and call
off military exercises with the Jewish state.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting later
Monday to hear a briefing on the incident, said Lebanon's Deputy
Ambassador Caroline Ziade, whose country holds the council
presidency. The Arab League called for a meeting to discuss the
issue Tuesday in Cairo.
The showdown came at a sensitive time for Israeli-Palestinian
peacemaking. Netanyahu, who expressed his "full backing" for the
military raid, had hoped to receive a high-profile expression of
support from Obama after months of strained relations over Israeli
settlement construction.
The White House said in a written statement that the United
States "deeply regrets" the loss of life and injuries and was
working to understand the circumstances surrounding this
"tragedy."
The activists were headed to Gaza to draw attention to the
blockade, which Israel and Egypt imposed after the militant Hamas
group seized the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians in 2007.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened early Monday,
with activists claiming the Israelis fired first and Israel
insisting its forces fired in self defense. Communications to the
ships were cut shortly after the raid began, and activists were
kept away from reporters after their boats were towed to the
Israeli port of Ashdod.
Helicopters evacuated the wounded to Israeli hospitals,
officials said. Three ships had reached port by early evening and
some 80 activists had been removed without serious incident, the
military said.
The footage filmed from Israeli aircraft and released by the
military showed activists swarming around commandos after they
descended from a helicopter by rope onto a boat carrying 600
passengers. Activists scuffled with the commandos and are seen
throwing an object the military identified as a firebomb.
A commando who spoke to reporters on a naval vessel off the
coast, identified only as "A," said he and his comrades were
taken off guard by a group of Arabic-speaking men when they
rappelled onto the deck.
He said some of the soldiers were stripped of their helmets and
equipment and thrown from the top deck to the lower deck, and that
some had even jumped overboard to save themselves. At one point one
of the activists seized one of the soldiers' weapons and opened
fire, the commando said.
A high-ranking naval official displayed a box confiscated from
the boat containing switchblades, slingshots, metal balls and metal
bats. "We prepared (the soldiers) to deal with peace activists,
not to fight," he said. Most of the dead were Turkish, he added.
Turkey's NTV network showed activists beating one commando with
sticks as he landed on one of the boats. Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy director of Chaim Sheba Medical Center
outside Tel Aviv, said two commandos were brought in with gunshot
wounds. Another had serious head wounds from an unspecified blow,
Afek added.
Before communications to the boats were severed, a Turkish
website showed video of pandemonium on board one of the vessels,
with activists in orange life jackets running around as some tried
to help an activist lying motionless on the deck. The site also
showed video of an Israeli helicopter flying overhead and Israeli
warships nearby.
Activists said Israeli naval commandos stormed the ships after
ordering them to stop in international waters, about 80 miles (130
kilometers) from Gaza's coast.
A reporter with the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, who
was sailing on the Turkish ship leading the flotilla, said the
Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding it, wounding the
captain.
"These savages are killing people here, please help," a
Turkish television reporter said.
The broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, "Everybody
shut up!"
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel's military chief of
staff and navy commander said all of the violence was centered on
the lead boat, the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying 600 of the 700
activists. Troops took over the five other boats without incident,
military chief Gabi Ashkenazi said.
"To me it is clear without a doubt, judging by what I saw and
what I heard in the first reports from the soldiers, that in light
of the danger to human life this violence required the use of
weapons," Ashkenazi said.
Robin Churchill, a professor of international law at the
University of Dundee in Scotland, said the Israeli commandos
boarded the ship outside of Israel's territorial waters.
"As far as I can see, there is no legal basis for boarding
these ships," Churchill said.
Many of the activists were from Europe.
At Barzilai hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, a
few activists trickled in under military escort. "They hit me,"
said a Greek man, whose right arm was in a sling, calling the
Israelis "pirates." He did not give his name as he was led away.
A second man, also Greek, wore a neck brace.
The European Union deplored what it called excessive use of
force and demanded an investigation by Israel. It called the Gaza
blockade "politically unacceptable," and called for it to be
lifted immediately.
Turkey and other nations called on the U.N. Security Council to
convene in an emergency session about Israel.
Thousands marched in protest in Istanbul, some setting Israeli
flags on fire after unsuccessfully trying to storm the Israeli
consulate. Israel quickly advised to its citizens to avoid travel
to Turkey. In Jordan, hundreds of protesters demanded that their
government break diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Israeli security forces were on alert across the country for
possible protests, but no serious unrest were reported.
There were no details on the identities of the casualties, or on
the conditions of some of the more prominent people on board,
including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire
of Northern Ireland and European legislators. Holocaust survivor
Hedy Epstein, 85, did not join the flotilla as she had planned.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Israeli
"aggression," declared three days of mourning across the West
Bank and called on the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to
hold emergency sessions on the incident.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the rival Hamas government in Gaza,
condemned the "brutal" Israeli attack and called on U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to intervene.
In Uganda, Ban condemned the deaths and called for a
"thorough" investigation. "Israel must provide an explanation,"
he said.
Before the ships set sail from waters off Cyprus on Sunday,
Israel had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade and
offered to transfer some of the cargo to Gaza from an Israeli port,
following a security inspection.
Organizers included the IHH, an Islamic humanitarian group that
is based in Istanbul but operates in several other countries.
Israel outlawed the group in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas.
The flotilla of three cargo ships and three passenger ships
carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists was carrying items
that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building
materials.
Israel has allowed ships through five times, but has blocked
them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military
offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers in January 2009.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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