Tel Aviv/Larnaca (Cyprus), May 31 (DPA) At least 10 foreign activists were killed early Monday, the Israeli military confirmed, after the navy stormed a flotilla of six ships bound for the Gaza Strip with aid.
Dozens were injured, the military said.
Four Israeli soldiers were also injured, one of them seriously with stab wounds to the stomach.
Other unconfirmed reports said 15 were killed, their nationalists yet unknown. Some 50 people are reported injured.
The flotilla of boats, containing 10,000 tonnes of aid had been warned before setting sail for Gaza that it would be denied entry.
Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Spokesman Avi Benayahu charged the Israeli naval commandos ran into violent, ‘almost unprecedented’ resistance when they boarded the ships, with activists using knives, sticks and iron rods against them.
Activists tried to grab the weapon of one of the commandos and ‘apparently’ even opened fire at the Israelis, he said.
He said the soldiers felt their lives were in ‘tangible’ danger and were forced to use live ammunition and riot dispersal means.
‘We didn’t find peace activists, but very violent people,’ he charged, calling their resistance against the Israeli commandos an ‘almost lynch’.
‘I also want to express sorrow. We wanted to end this event with no injuries,’ he said. ‘Really we made every effort’.
Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, however charged she witnessed footage from the Turkish ship which she said had more than two dozen cameras on board and saw the soldiers opening fire on civilians when they landed on board from their helicopter.
‘The minute they had their feed on the deck, they started to shoot,’ she charged.
The Israeli commandos were reportedly still combing the largest of the vessels, the Turkish Marmara with had carried most of the passengers, some 500.
The wounded were being sent to hospitals in Israel.
In Turkey, angry protesters surrounded the Israeli consulate in Istanbul.
The Israeli commandos descended from helicopters shortly before dawn after the ships had been intercepted and followed by Israeli naval vessels around midnight.
Passengers of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ immediately put on life jackets and were on high alert, according to the international group. A reporter from Al-Jazeera television on board said they decided to continue their efforts to reach the Gaza coast but changed course to gain time and try to reach the enclave during the day.
The flotilla, carrying 700 activists and 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid, set off from Cyprus Sunday afternoon on the last leg of what organisers hoped would be a successful attempt to break Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip.
Israel placed the Gaza Strip under siege in 2006 after militants based in the enclave launched a cross-border raid on an Israeli army outpost and snatched an Israeli soldier, who is still being held somewhere in the salient.
The blockade was tightened further in June 2007 when gunmen from the Islamist Hamas movement routed security officers loyal to the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas and seized control of the Strip.
Since then, Israel has kept tight control over the border crossings, supervising the aid allowed to enter the Gaza Strip and at times stopping it temporarily when militants launch rockets at Israeli communities adjacent to the enclave.