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Flotilla attacked; 10 dead, dozens arrested

May 31, 2010 8:56 A.M. (Updated: June 3, 2010 9:46 A.M.)
Jerusalem - Ma'an - Thirty-two anti-siege activists were detained from the Freedom Flotilla ships after Israeli naval ships escorted the boats to shore after a violent attack in international waters that saw at least 10 killed by Israeli forces.

The European Campaign Against the Siege said 13 of its members were either injured or detained, and early estimates from the same group said 16 were dead, six of them Turkish nationals.

Israeli media identified some of the dead as Palestinian citizens of Israel, saying families had been notified, and up to 15 other victims were said to have been Turkish. An Israeli source told the Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail, that "most of the 10 dead were Turkish." Some estimates say as many as 20 were killed.

Israeli officials said they intend to press charges on most of the 32 detained, but did not specify what crimes the activists are alleged to have committed.

Israeli military officials have remained mum on the identities of the dead, saying in their last statement that nine were killed. The same statement, however, detailed the injuries of Israeli commandos who boarded the ships via helicopters and rigid-inflatable boats (RIB). "A total of seven soldiers were wounded – four soldiers were moderately wounded, of which two were initially in critical condition, as well as an additional three soldiers who were lightly wounded," the statement said.

Commenting on the aid flotilla victims, the military statement said that "Among the violent activists, there were nine casualties as a result of the soldiers defending themselves."

Dozens of countries said they had not made contact with their nationals, save France and Australia, who reported via public statements that all were accounted for.

The government of Pakistan publicly expressed concern over the safety of its citizens and a journalist on board, and bloggers said an Al-Jazeera journalist was also missing.

British authorities were unable to confirm the whereabouts of their citizens, but flotilla organizers said 12 nationals were among the injured and detained, noting none were killed. Their names are included at bottom.

Israeli military officials said the injured were being evacuated to the Tel Hashomer Hospital in Israel, while Flotilla organizers said the injured Greek captain of one vessel had refused treatment by soldiers.

Organizers said that the some 750 passengers from 40 nations on the ships were preparing to demonstrate once they were forced off the ships in Ashdod, where over a hundred Israeli protesters await them with signs calling for the ships to be allowed into Gaza.

One those initially believed to have been critically injured was Palestinian Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic movement in Israel and an outspoken member of the community in the north. Large protests were expected, but the sheikh returned safe on the final of the six boats to be dragged into shore.

Flotilla: Soldiers shoot sleeping civilians

The attack on the ships started at 11:30 pm Sunday, organizers reported, with Israeli vessels approaching the boats and demanding that they divert to the Israeli port of Ashdod. The boats did not divert their course.

"Who are you and where are you going?" Flotilla organizers said Israeli naval ships asked over loudspeakers at 11pm Sunday night.

A statement from members of the aid ships said that the response indicated "we were part of a flotilla and we were going to Gaza to deliver humanitarian supplies."

One supporter monitoring the Israeli action on the boats informed organizers on board that "You will be boarded by highly trained, very efficient and very silent commandos. They will use silent inflatable boats to get to our boats and both try to board our boats directly from the inflatables and by dropping divers into the water to climb onto the boats."

The attack, flotilla organizers said, took place 90 nautical miles off the Gaza coast, in international waters. Lawyers say the attack will be difficult to justify under international law, domestic law and the law of the sea.

An update from passengers on the ship at 10am on Monday said none were armed but the landing soldiers, who fired "the moment their feet hit the deck. They shot civilians asleep."

A statement issued by organizing partner in the fleet Viva Palestina said more than 50 participants were injured after one of the six boats bound for Gaza was surrounded by Israeli navy forces before being boarded by armed forces descending from helicopters.

Reports from the Turkish TV station NTV said Israeli forces opened fire while on the boat. Images broadcast live feed showed panicked activists wearing life jackets and medics treating what appeared to be gunshot wounds in galleys.

A statement from the Israeli military said "demonstrators onboard attacked the IDF Naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs," after ships used radio to order the boats to divert to the Israeli Port of Ashdod. A later statement, however, said the two "violent activists holding pistols" who were detained by soldiers on the ship had in fact taken the weapons from Israeli soldiers.

Raw footage with commentary in Arabic, Turkish and English, shows An Al-Jazeera commentator telling a camera crew that ship passengers raised a white flag following the death of one activist, and described continued shooting.

According to an Israeli military statement, one soldier was injured by his own arms, when a passenger grabbed the weapon from a soldier's hands.

"The demonstrators had clearly prepared their weapons in advance for this specific purpose," one statement said, while activists insist there were no shots fired from their side.

"As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including live fire."

Later reports said only two firearms were found on board the ship, both belonging to Israeli combat soldiers from whom they had been wrestled.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nentayhu said the activists on board "triggered the violence," adding that Israeli forces "did everything possible to avoid this incident ... Unfortunately, [Israeli forces] were attacked with extreme violence by those on the boat, with iron bars, knives and live ammunition," the French daily Le Monde quoted the official as saying.

An Israeli military statement noted that "This IDF naval operation was carried out under orders from the political leadership to halt the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip and breaching the maritime closure."

Israel has imposed a siege of the Gaza Strip for three years, with a blockade imposed since 2006 when the Hamas movement won legislative elections in Palestine.

Following Israel's war on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, 1,400 Palestinians were killed, and according to the UN, some 6,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged. Construction materials like cement have been prohibited from entering Gaza but for two projects under INGO supervision. Many Gazans remain homeless.

The aid flotilla had several thousand tons of aid, including cement, school books and prefabricated homes for the residents of Gaza.

Israeli officials earlier offered the Flotilla dock space in Ashdod, saying they would deliver the aid to Gaza via the land borders. With reports by Oxfam saying medical supplies had not been permitted into Gaza in the past three months, and reports from the UN that reconstruction supplies for leaking sewage networks and the power lines were limited and barely adequate, activists decided to refuse the offer and enter Gaza.

Israeli forces say they withdrew from their occupation of Gaza in 2005, but maintain tight control of the land and sea borders.

British nationals injured or detained:

As identified by Free Gaza activist George Galloway:

Kevin Ovenden

Nicola Enchmarch

Nader Daher

Hassan Ghani

Alex Phillips

Ashan Shamrak

Sarah Colbourne

Alex Harrison

Ismail Patel

Sidique Hajee

Ibrahim Musaji

Peter Viner

Mohammed Bayyat
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