Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza

Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza on Monday and at least 10 pro-Palestinian activists were killed, triggering a diplomatic crisis and an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.

European nations, as well as the United Nations and Turkey, voiced shock and outrage at the bloody end to the international campaigners' bid to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Its navy stopped six ships ferrying 700 people and 10,000 tons of supplies toward the Islamist-run Palestinian enclave, but bloody miscalculation left Israel isolated and condemned.

Once-close Muslim ally Turkey accused it of "terrorism" in international waters, and the U.N. Security Council prepared an emergency session. Speaking for Israel's most powerful friend, the United States, President Barack Obama said he wanted the full facts soon and regretted the loss of life.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also voiced regret as he cut short a visit to Canada and rang Obama to call off a White House meeting planned for Tuesday.

He said his forces had been attacked. "They were mobbed, they were clubbed, they were beaten, stabbed, there was even a report of gunfire. And our soldiers had to defend themselves."

Netanyahu vowed to maintain a three-year-old embargo to stop Iranian-backed Hamas from bringing arms to Gaza.

His White House meeting had seemed intended to soothe ties with Obama, which have been strained by differences over Jewish settlement construction that had delayed a revival of peace talks with the Palestinians. But Obama must also balance support for Israel, which is popular with American voters, with understanding for an angry Turkey and other Muslim U.S. allies.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed unlikely to hold further sessions soon of U.S.-mediated peace talks that began three weeks ago. He said: "What Israel has committed on board the Freedom Flotilla was a massacre."

Paintball Attack

As the captured foreign vessels were escorted into Israel's port of Ashdod, accounts were sketchy of the pre-dawn operation, some 120 km (75 miles) out in the Mediterranean. Marines stormed aboard from dinghies and rappelled down from helicopters.

Military night-vision video, aired on Israeli television, showed some commandos being winched down, only to be surrounded and beaten. Some Israeli commentators asked why commanders put troops in a position where they felt they had to open fire.

An Israeli minister admitted plans to maintain the blockade on Hamas while avoiding an international incident had backfired in spectacular fashion: "It's going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it," Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said.

One marine told reporters his squad went in with anti-riot paintball guns but, fearing for their lives, some resorted to using live pistols, while others jumped overboard. In military footage, a commando fired a paintball at a man who seemed to be clubbing an Israeli.

Other video showed a commando fire a pistol, two-handed.

Netanyahu said at least 10 activists died on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish cruise ship carrying 581 people. Military officers said some activists had snatched pistols from the boarding party, which responded to gunfire. Seven troops and 20 protesters were injured, the military said.

Protest organizers said they believed up to 16 people may have been killed, including six Turks. A senior Israeli officer said most of the dead were Turks. The convoy also featured Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and many Europeans.

Israel imposed a communications blackout on those aboard the convoy and other accounts of events were not available. Consular officials were at Ashdod seeking access to detained foreigners.

Turkish Anger

The bloodshed sparked street protests and government ire in Turkey, long Israel's lone Muslim ally in the region.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist views and outreach to Iran and other Israeli enemies are blamed by many in Israel for souring relations, said before cutting short a trip to Chile: "This action, totally contrary to the principles of international law, is inhumane state terrorism."

Ankara also canceled joint military exercises and recalled its ambassador. Israel told tourists in Turkey to stay indoors.

Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, dismissed charges that Israel had broken international law by boarding foreign ships far beyond its territorial waters.

Israeli forces were on high alert on the Gaza, Syrian and Lebanese borders as well as around Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and Arab-populated areas of northern Israel. Aside from a few scuffles, however, there was little violence locally.

There were demonstrations in several world cities.

Israel's Arab enemy Syria, which hosts exiled Hamas leaders, called for an Arab League meeting. The League condemned what it called a "terrorist act." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it "inhuman." Tehran urged the world to isolate Israel.

More worryingly for Israel, its friends showed little sympathy. The outrage sounded at times more uniformly hostile to the Jewish state than during its offensive in Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians in December 2008 and January 2009.

Israel said it launched that war to curb Hamas rocket fire on its towns. But it has found it harder to win understanding for an embargo limiting supplies to 1.5 million people in Gaza, including cement the U.N. says it needs to repair bomb damage.

A senior U.N. official responsible for the aid on which Gaza depends said: "Such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza."

Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that organized the convoy, said: "How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this? Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?"

[Source: By Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald, Reuters, Jerusalem, 31May10]

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