BBC News | Thursday, 3 June 2010 | 8:44 GMT
Turkish planes carrying hundreds of activists from the Gaza-bound aid flotilla intercepted by Israeli forces have arrived in Istanbul from Israel. The activists returned to an enthusiastic welcome led by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. The bodies of nine people killed when Israeli commandos took control of the six aid vessels were also flown in. Earlier, PM Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had "no choice" but to storm the ships on Monday. As activists accused Israeli forces of brutality, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council voted to set up an independent international inquiry into the raid. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also demanded that Israel lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip immediately, calling the siege "counter-productive, unsustainable and wrong".
Meanwhile, talk is now turning to the next ship on its way across the Mediterranean to try to break the blockade. The Rachel Corrie – carrying about 11 people, including Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire – had been due to be part of the original flotilla but was delayed because of technical problems. The BBC’s Jon Donnison in Gaza says the ship could be in the region as early as Saturday. Israel has said it will not be allowed to dock in Gaza.
After several hours of delay, the three aircraft chartered by the Turkish government to bring some 450 foreign activists out of Israel landed at Istanbul airport in the early hours of Thursday. A crowd of about 1,000 people gathered at the airport waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israeli slogans. In a fiery speech at the airport, Mr Arinc accused Israel of piracy and said his government saluted the controversial
Turkish Islamic charity which played a leading role in organising the convoy – a charity Israel has accused of supporting terrorism. Some of the freed activists said they had tried to defend themselves against heavily armed commandos. One said the soldiers had fired indiscriminately.
British activist Sarah Colbourne told the BBC: "I couldn’t even count the amount of ships that were in the water. It was literally bristling with ships, helicopters and gunfire. It was horrific, absolutely horrific." All the Turkish activists will be sent for a medical check before being sent home. Consular staff is also on hand to help the activists from other countries. They include 37 people who hold British passports. Most of the activists were flown out of Israel with no belongings other than their passports and clothes, the BBC’s Andrew North at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport reported. Israel has identified four of the dead as Turkish nationals, but the identity of the five others is unknown. On Wednesday, three air ambulances carrying several wounded activists arrived in Ankara. Seven other activists were in a serious condition and would remain in Israeli hospitals until they could be moved, Israeli officials said.
In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed criticism of the raid as "international hypocrisy". He said the soldiers had been met by a "vicious mob" and had acted to defend themselves. He said it was Israel’s duty to prevent rockets and other weapons being smuggled into Gaza to Hamas by Iran and others. The flotilla, he argued, was not aiming to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazans but was trying to break the blockade. "This was not a love boat, this was a boat of hate," Mr Netanyahu said. About 700 activists – including 400 Turks – were trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip by bringing in 10,000 tonnes of aid. The aid – including school supplies, building materials and two large electricity generators – is now stuck at the Israel-Gaza border, our correspondent in Gaza says.
Israel has been keen to show it will let the aid in as promised, but a Hamas government minister says this will not happen until all the protesters on board the flotilla are released from custody without exception, he reports. All foreign nationals have now been released but there are still a number of Israeli citizens in detention, our correspondent adds. Israel rejects claims that Gaza – which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas took control in 2007 – is experiencing a humanitarian crisis. The UN, Europe and others have strongly criticised Israel after its commandos stormed the six-ship flotilla in international waters, setting off the clashes. The harshest criticism has come from Turkey, Israel’s sole ally in the Muslim world. Turkey has already recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and scrapped plans for joint military exercises. Lawmakers passed a declaration demanding that Israel formally apologise for the raid, pay compensation to the victims, and bring those responsible to justice. But the government stopped short of cutting ties to Israel, and has made it clear that it wants to protect vital trade and tourism links.