Netanyahu cancels Obama meeting amid raid furore

Israel's prime minister has cancelled a planned meeting with President Obama to deal with the escalating international crisis over an attack by the Israeli military on civilian aid ships that left at least 10 dead.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, is in Canada and had been due to visit the White House tomorrow after a series of increasingly fractious meetings with the US over the stalled Middle East peace process.

But after Israeli naval commandos stormed the ships of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla overnight, killing up to 19 according to some reports and leaving dozens wounded, Mr Netanyahu has found his country the target of international condemnation and protest.

He said he gave the Israeli military his "full backing" but after initially saying his trip would continue, his office said it had been cancelled.

The Israeli army admitted to 10 deaths in the operation, with reports suggesting nine victims of the violence - which mainly took place on a Turkish vessel - were from Turkey. The reports prompted a furious reaction in Istanbul, where tens of thousands of protesters attempted to storm the Israeli consulate, chanting slogans calling for revenge. Turkey, whose relations with Israel were already tense, immediately withdrew its ambassador and cancelled joint military exercises. At least 28 Britons were aboard ships in the flotilla but it is not known if any of them were involved in the violence.

An Israeli government spokesman said its troops were attacked last night with knives and metal pipes as they attempted to board one of the ships from a helicopter. He said that shooting started when one of the civilians made a grab for a soldier's gun.

A total of ten soldiers were wounded, including at least one hit by live fire, the army said. Two of the dead activists had fired pistols snatched from soldiers, the army said.

As the Israeli Defence Force towed the six ships into the Israel port of Ashdod, some of the wounded were ferried to Israeli hospitals for treatment.

Countries around the world condemned the raid, with the UN human rights chief Navi Pillay saying she was "shocked" at the violence and the UN Middle East envoy saying that "such tragedies are entirely avoidable". The UN security council is to meet this afternoon over the crisis. Hamas, the Islamist group which rules the Gaza Strip, called on Muslims around the world to "rise up" in protest.

The White House has expressed "deep concern" and said it is working to understand the circumstances of the deaths.

Television pictures from the night raid in international waters showed Israeli boats closing in on at least one aid ship and others abseiling from helicopters on to the ship's deck, into a chaotic melee of fighting with sticks and fists. Images of bloody stretchers and wounded people lying on the deck in the aftermath of the raid were also broadcast.

The greatest violence appears to have taken place on the Mavi Marmara, a vessel sponsored by the Turkish Islamic aid organisation Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which Israel says has links with Hamas. But a Greek NGO, Boat for Gaza, said its vessel the Sfendoni had also come under fire.

"There was an attack with live bullets against the Greek boat Sfendoni and the Turkish boat Mavi Marmara, with helicopters and inflatable boats," the group said.

"They planned this attack," said Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch. "Our soldiers were injured from these knives and sharp metal objects ... as well as from live fire… It was as if they were planning to lynch the forces."

Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, later expressed regret over the death, but blamed the flotilla's organisers for the violence, calling the flotilla a "political provocation".

The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas described the raid as "a massacre" and announced three days of mourning.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he "deplored the loss of life" in the incident and had asked for urgent access to British citizens involved. But he added it was important to establish the facts.

"We have consistently advised against attempting to access Gaza in this way, because of the risks involved. But at the same time, there is a clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations," he said.

The six-vessel flotilla had been carrying about 600 activists from a variety of nations. The Turkish government said the incident "which took place in open seas and constitutes a fragrant breach of international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations." Anti-Israeli demonstrations were also staged in Lebanon and Jordan. Kuwait's cabinet is to hold an emergency meeting later today regarding the convoy, which also included 15 Kuwaiti nationals and an MP.

The European Union demanded full inquiry and unconditional openings of crossings to Gaza, and Israeli ambassadors were summoned to explain their country's conduct in Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. Both European Union ambassadors and the Arab League are set to hold emergency talks.

Israel had vowed to prevent the fleet from arriving in Gaza, sending three missile boats from the northern port of Haifa last night to stop them and force them into the southern port of Ashdod, close to the Gaza Strip. The military said it would allow the activists to put the aid in Israel's care for delivery by land to Gaza.

The convoy had been carrying thousands of tons of aid, including prefabricated building material and electric wheelchairs, as well as hundreds of supporters from a variety of countries. The flotilla had set out from Cyprus on Sunday and been intercepted late at night in international waters as it steamed towards Gaza. Israeli naval officers warned the aid ships to turn back before boarding them.

By midday today one of the ships had reached the Israeli port of Ashdod and the rest were being towed towards the shore. The Israeli army had previously said it would deport those on board who signed a statement saying they would take no further "actions against Israel" but would also assess whether those on the ships should face charges in Israeli courts.

The flotilla's organisers had already complained of Israeli harassment even before they left Cyprus, accusing Israeli agents of blocking satellite signals and other communications equipment necessary for their safe navigation, and twice delaying their departure.

Among the passengers on the ships were an 18-month-old child, the Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, several MEPs and an elderly Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, as well as the Swedish author Henning Mankell.

Israel, which has allowed some previous aid fleets to enter Gaza, says that it delivers humanitarian aid to the strip, though aid organizations have said the amounts allowed in are too low for the reconstruction efforts needed after Israel launched a devastating offensive in Gaza 18 months ago to stem Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

The flotilla, which includes three cargo ships and three passenger ships, is carrying items that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials. The activists said they also were carrying hundreds of electric-powered wheelchairs, prefabricated homes and water purifiers.

Several more ships were scheduled to leave Cyprus for Gaza in the coming days, and organisers said they would not be deterred by the violence.

[Source: Times, London, 31May10]

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