Up to 19 killed as Israeli commandos storm Gaza aid fleet

Israeli navy commandos stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in international waters on Monday, killing up to 19 pro-Palestinian activists in a pre-dawn raid that sparked global outrage.

The bloody ending to the high-profile mission to deliver supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip plunged Israel into a serious diplomatic crisis on the eve of talks in Washington between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Israel pointed the finger of blame at passengers for initiating the violence, accusing them of using deadly force, activists from the ships countered with their own descriptions of how events unfolded in the raid which took place at around 5:00 am (0200 GMT).

Live footage from the Turkish passenger boat, which was posted all over the Internet, showed black-clad Israeli commandos rappelling down from helicopters and clashing with activists, as well as several wounded people lying on the deck of the ship.

Israel claims the troops returned fire after they were attacked with live rounds, knives and clubs, but flotilla organisers insist the soldiers started shooting the moment they hit the deck.

Only limited footage of the incident has been broadcast as communications with the six ships participating in the flotilla appeared to have been scrambled during the operation.

The Israeli army insisted its troops opened fire only after they were attacked with knives, clubs and even live fire.

"As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces employed riot dispersal means, including live fire," an army statement said, adding that it appeared as if the passengers "were planning to lynch the forces."

Israel had pinned the blame squarely on the activists, saying: "They initiated the violence. We made every possible effort to avoid this incident," Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said.

"Unfortunately they were attacked with deadly force by the people on the boats."

According to Channel 10 television, 19 passengers were killed and 36 wounded in the confrontation, although the Israeli army gave a toll of 10.

The IHH, a Turkish NGO involved with the flotilla, put the toll at least 15, saying most of them Turkish nationals.

Israel's military top brass said the violence had been limited to the Turkish passenger boat, the Mavi Marmara, with Navy chief Admiral Eliezer Marom saying his troops "had acted with extreme restraint" in a very dangerous situation.

"The result of 10 deaths could have been far worse had the soldiers acted differently," Marom told reporters at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv, saying that troops had only been pushed to use live fire on board the Mavi Marmara.

"On none of the other five ships was live fire required in order to stop the flotilla."

During the operation, "10 people who attacked our soldiers were killed and dozens more were wounded," Maron said, noting that all the injured were taken to hospitals in Israel by air force helicopters.

Ten naval commandos were also wounded in the clashes, two of whom were said to be severely injured, while another three were in moderate condition.

Despite the admiral's remarks, organisers say the Greek passenger ship, Sfendoni, also came under fire from Israel troops.

Hours after the confrontation, the Sfendoni and another ship were seen being towed by the navy into the southern port of Ashdod, a correspondent said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas slammed the navy raid as "a massacre" and announced a three-day mourning period. His Palestinian Authority also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

Israel's Arab community called a general strike in response to an Israeli naval operation and called for protests across the country against the bloody attack.

And Ismail Haniya, prime minister of the Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip called on the Palestinian Authority "to halt negotiations, direct or indirect, with Israel because of this crime".

The ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, were on the last leg of an aid mission to deliver some 10,000 tonnes of supplies to Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.

Israel had warned the attempt to break the Gaza blockade was illegal and that it would intercept the ships, tow them to the Ashdod port and detain the activists before deporting them.

[Source: The Times of India, AFP, Ashod, 31May10]

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