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Nine dead in Vicious conflict aboard ‘Mavi Marmara’
By YAAKOV KATZ
01/06/2010
Dozens wounded, including 10 soldiers, in pre-dawn battle at sea; Israel says its commandos were brutally attacked before opening fire.
 
The Israeli Navy’s takeover of a flotilla of international aid ships headed to the Gaza Strip came to a dramatic end before dawn Monday, with nine activists dead and dozens wounded. Defense officials said that despite the outcome, Israel would continue to enforce the blockade on Gaza and use force if necessary to prevent activists’ ships from reaching the Strip.

IDF naval commandos slid down ropes onto the Mavi Marmara Turkish passenger ship from helicopters. They immediately encountered fierce resistance as they were attacked by activists armed with bats, knives and metal pipes. The boarding of the five other ships was completed without incident.

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Aboard the Mavi Marmara, the commandos first responded to the violence with crowd dispersion measures, and after almost an hour of scuffles, during which a number of soldiers were wounded – some of them stabbed or shot – the commandos were given permission to use live fire. At one point, activists succeeded in stealing a handgun from one of the soldiers, leading to an escalation in violence.

The navy made initial contact with the flotilla at 11 p.m. on Sunday night and ordered the ships to follow them to Ashdod Port or be boarded. The boarding started at 2 a.m. on Monday and was completed by 8.

The IDF released a grainy black-and-white video that supported its version of events and showed activists swarming around commandos after they descended from a helicopter by rope. Activists scuffled with the commandos and were seen throwing an object the military identified as a firebomb.

IDF sources said that despite the unfortunate outcome, the navy will continue to use the same type of operations to stop vessels that try to break the blockade. Another ship, named Rachel Corrie – for the American International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed in Gaza in 2003 – was still making its way to Gaza and the IDF said that it would intercept the ship and prevent it from reaching the Strip.

“If more ships come, we will use the same tactic in the future,” a top IDF source told The Jerusalem Post, adding that it was possible that Israel had succeeded in creating a deterrent for future ships trying to reach Gaza.

OC Israel Navy V.-Adm. Eliezer Marom said the IDF soldiers who raided the  Mavi Marmara acted with “perseverance and bravery.”

The soldiers’ lives were in danger and they fired their weapons in self-defense, Marom said. Many more people could have been killed if the soldiers had not acted with the proper sensitivity, he added.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a press conference that while he regretted the loss of lives, the organizers of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla were solely responsible for the outcome.

The soldiers tried to disperse the activists aboard the ship peacefully but were forced to open fire to protect themselves, Barak said.

He called the flotilla a provocation and called the Turkish organization IHH, which organized the initiative, “extremist supporters of terror.”

The defense minister called on Arab and Palestinian leaders not to let this “provocation by irresponsible people” ruin the progress made in proximity peace talks.

IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Monday that the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara was instigated by those aboard the ships and that soldiers who opened fire were defending themselves.

Ashkenazi noted that the Mavi Marmara, the only ship on which violence took place, was different than the other five ships of the flotilla. He said that five ships carried humanitarians and peace activists, but the Mavi Marmara was sponsored by the extremist organization the IHH and those aboard acted with “extreme violence.”

Helicopters evacuated the wounded to Israeli hospitals, officials said. Five ships had reached port by early evening and 136 activists had been removed without serious incident, the military said.

Sixteen were jailed for refusing to identify themselves, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

According to police procedures, activists who agreed to be deported were immediately taken to Ben-Gurion Airport and flown home at Israel’s expense. Those who did not agree were transferred to a prison facility for questioning.

By press time, 150 people from five ships were examined, only 40 of whom came from the Mavi Marmara. Forty people agreed to be deported immediately, mostly Greeks and Turks.

Turkey’s NTV network showed activists beating one commando with sticks as he landed on one of the boats. Of the 10 soldiers wounded in the raid, Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy director of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, said two commandos were brought in with gunshot wounds. Another had serious head wounds from an unspecified blow, Afek added.

Yaakov Lappin and AP contributed to this report.
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