Israeli forces have attacked a flotilla of
aid-carrying ships aiming to break the country's siege on Gaza.
At least 19 people were killed and dozens injured when troops
intercepted the convoy of ships dubbed the Freedom Flotilla early on
Monday, Israeli radio reported.
The flotilla was attacked in international
waters, 65km off the Gaza coast.
Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, confirmed that the
attack took place in international waters, saying: "This happened in
waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend
Footage from the flotilla's lead vessel, the Mavi
Marmara, showed armed Israeli soldiers boarding the ship and
helicopters flying overhead.
Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal, on board the Mavi Marmara,
said Israeli troops had used live ammunition during the operation.
The Israeli military said
four soldiers had been wounded and claimed troops opened fire after
"demonstrators onboard attacked the IDF Naval personnel with live fire
and light weaponry including knives and clubs".
Free Gaza Movement, the organisers of the flotilla, however, said the
troops opened fire as soon as they stormed the convoy.
Our correspondent said that a white surrender flag was raised from
the ship and there was no live fire coming from the passengers.
Before losing communication with our correspondent, a voice in Hebrew
was clearly heard saying: "Everyone shut up".
Earlier, the Israeli navy had contacted the captain of the Mavi
Marmara, asking him to identify himself and say where the ship was
Shortly after, two Israeli naval vessels had flanked the flotilla on
either side, but at a distance.
Organisers of the flotilla
carrying 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid then diverted their ships and
slowed down to avoid a confrontation during the night.
They also issued all passengers life jackets and asked them to remain
Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Jerusalem, said the
Israeli action was surprising.
"All the images being shown from the activists on board those ships
show clearly that they were civilians and peaceful in nature, with
medical supplies on board. So it will surprise many in the international
community to learn what could have possibly led to this type of
confrontation," he said.
Meanwhile, Israeli police have been put on a heightened state of
alert across the country to prevent any civil disturbances.
Salah,a leading member of the Islamic Movement who was on board the
ship, was reported to have been seriously injured. He was being treated
in Israel's Tal Hasharon hospital.
In Um Al Faham, the stronghold of the Islamic movement in Israel and
the birth place of Salah, preparations for mass demonstrations were
Condemnation has been quick to pour in after the Israeli action.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, officially declared a
three-day state of mourning over Monday's deaths.
Turkey, Spain, Greece, Denmark and Sweden have all summoned the
Israeli ambassador's in their respective countries to protest against
the deadly assault.
of Turkish protesters tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul
soon after the news of the operation broke. The protesters shouted "Damn
Israel" as police blocked them.
"(The interception on the convoy) is unacceptable ... Israel will
have to endure the consequences of this behaviour," the Turkish foreign
ministry said in a statement.
Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has also dubbed the Israeli
action as "barbaric".
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, including a Nobel laureate and
several European legislators, were with the flotilla, aiming to reach
Gaza in defiance of an Israeli embargo.
The convoy came from the UK, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and
Turkey, and was comprised of about 700 people from 50 nationalities.
But Israel had said it would not allow the flotilla to reach the Gaza
Strip and vowed to stop the six ships from reaching the coastal
The flotilla had set sail from a port in Cyprus on Sunday and aimed
to reach Gaza by Monday morning.
Israel said the boats were embarking on "an act of provocation"
against the Israeli military, rather than providing aid, and that it had
issued warrants to prohibit their entrance to Gaza.
It asserted that the flotilla would be breaking international law by
landing in Gaza, a claim the organisers rejected.
Al Jazeera and agencies