Israel in eye of storm over Gaza ship raid

Israel's regional allies froze military ties as angry protests erupted over the storming Monday of aid ships bound for Gaza, while Muslim leaders demanded swift UN action to punish the "criminal" assault.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "shocked" by the navy assault on a convoy carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, lawmakers and journalists through international waters towards besieged Gaza.

Ban called on Israel to "urgently" explain itself over the raid, reported to have killed up to 19 people, many of them Turks, and a UN diplomat said the Security Council had scrambled to convene emergency talks on the crisis.

Israel's closest ally Washington said it "deeply regrets the loss of life" and was "working to understand" what caused the "tragedy."

The Jewish state's chief regional partner Turkey responded with fury, scrapping plans for joint war games with Israel and recalling its ambassador, as it warned the "flagrant breach of international law" would have "irreparable consequences" for bilateral ties.

Tens of thousands of furious Turks poured into the streets with protestors in Istanbul burning Israeli flags, shouting "Damn Israel!" and demanding "A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, revenge, revenge!"

The Vatican voiced "deep sadness and concern" and Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair expressed his "deep regret and shock," as capitals across Europe summoned Israel's ambassadors to explain the assault.

Greece, which had dozens of nationals in the convoy, also pulled out of joint military exercises with Israel as an aid group claimed that commandos in helicopters had fired on a Greek vessel.

Israel said its troops were attacked after they stormed six ships loaded with thousands of tonnes of aid and with hundreds of activists aboard, and that both sides used live fire.

Israel, which has blockaded Gaza since its bitter foe Hamas was elected to power three years ago, had called the expedition illegal and warned it would act to stop it.

Muslim leaders united in condemning what Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas called a "massacre" and Arab League chief Amr Mussa said was a "crime."

Hamas, which rules Gaza urged world Muslims to "rise up" in protest, as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced the raid as "inhuman Zionist regime action."

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri described the raid as "dangerous and crazy" and called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, chaired by Beirut until midnight in New York.

Across the country Palestinian refugees and activists demonstrated to denounce the raid, chanting slogans like "Give us weapons, give us weapons and send us on to Gaza."

The UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, called for a worldwide boycott and sanctions against Israel, saying "those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behaviour" should be held criminally accountable.

Pakistan also "strongly condemned" the attack on a "peaceful flotilla," as politicians, lawmakers and journalists protested in Islamabad against Israel.

Egypt condemned the "acts of killing" by Israel forces while Kuwait's parliament speaker said the storming of the flotilla, which was carrying 16 Kuwaitis including an MP, was a "heinous Israeli crime."

And Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, said "there was no basis" for Israel's assault.

In Europe, condemnation was equally swift, with the European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton demanding Israel mount a "full inquiry."

Spain -- the current European Union president -- France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Greece and Cyprus summoned Israel's respective ambassadors, with Madrid slamming the operation as "unacceptable".

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Israel of a "disproportionate use of force."

Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was "deeply concerned" about the deaths, while Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini "deplored" the loss of civilian life.

Russia also condemned a "crude violation" of international law.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague deplored the loss of life, saying Israel must "act with restraint" -- but also said London had warned of the risks of defying the Gaza blockade.

A Cyprus MEP, Kyriacos Triantafyllides, who was involved with the mission, said activists had "expected a strong reaction from Israel."

"But nobody believed it would come to this point, where they would face something akin to an invading army," he said.

[Source: The News International, Ankara, 31May10]

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