Middle East

Gaza flotilla: Israel frees foreign flotilla activists

Freed pro-Palestinian activists arrive by coach at Ben Gurion airport to be deported, 2 June
Hundreds of activists were being coached to Ben Gurion airport for deportation

Nearly all the foreign activists held by Israel after its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla are due to be deported by the end of the day.

About 120 of the 682 detainees were expelled overland through Jordan while hundreds more, most of them Turks, were due to be flown out.

Nine activists, four of them Turkish, died when Israeli commandos boarded the six-ship convoy early on Monday.

Turkey's parliament has called for relations with Israel to be reviewed.

The declaration passed by MPs also called for Israel to make a formal apology and pay compensation to victims.

Some MPs from the governing Justice and Development Party had wanted a much tougher statement, calling for a freeze on Turkey's substantial military and commercial ties to Israel, the BBC's Jonathan Head reports from Istanbul.

There is a lot at stake for both countries, our correspondent says. Trade is worth well over $3bn (£2bn) a year and there are dozens of joint ventures between Turkish and Israeli companies.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel earlier of a "bloody massacre" over the deaths, which are all thought to have taken place on the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara.

The identities of the non-Turkish activists killed in the raid remain unknown.

Ankara recalled its ambassador to Israel on Monday, while Israeli media reports say the families of Israeli diplomats in Turkey have been ordered to leave the country.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak thanked the commandos involved in the raid when he visited them at their base in Atlit.

"We live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren't second chances for those who don't defend themselves," he was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as saying.

Chants of celebration

Activists were ferried to Ben Gurion airport by coach, flashing victory signs to reporters.

Four planes were due to fly them out - three Turkish jets bound for Istanbul and one Greek jet going to Greece.

Two seriously injured activists were to stay behind in Israel and were being treated by the Turkish Red Crescent in an Israeli hospital.

About 120 activists arrived in Jordan via the Allenby crossing in the morning to cheers and applause from supporters.

They activists, from Arab and Muslim nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan, were due to travel on to Amman, from where they would travel to their respective countries.

More than 300 activists were taken from Beersheba prison by bus to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to be flown out of Israel, the Israeli interior ministry said.

Three Israeli Arabs on the aid flotilla remain in custody.

Israel seized a total of 682 people along with the ships. Around 50 activists were deported early on Tuesday.

The Israeli government is clearly hoping that releasing the activists will relieve some of the pressure its under internationally, says the BBC's Andrew North in Jerusalem.

Israel said its soldiers were attacked with "knives, clubs and other weapons" when they landed on the Mavi Marmara and had opened fire in self-defence.

Freed activists have disputed Israel's account, accusing the soldiers of brutality.

"They came up and used plastic bullets, we had beatings, we had electric shocks, any method we can think of, they used," Greek activist Dimitris Gielalis said.

The six ships, carrying more than 10,000 tonnes of aid, had sailed from Cyprus in a bid to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Israel had warned organisers that the flotilla would not be allowed to land in Gaza, but had said the ships could land in the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The MV Rachel Corrie, another aid ship with Irish and other pro-Palestinian activists aboard, is expected to reach the point of Monday's confrontation by the weekend.

Following the Israeli raid, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip to be opened to allow humanitarian aid through.

International concern

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council has voted to set up an independent international inquiry into the raid.

In London, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Israel's raid was "completely unacceptable" and called for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted.

The blockade "just strengthens Hamas's grip on Gaza", he told the British Parliament.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier called the situation in Gaza "unsustainable".

Israel has maintained control of Gaza's airspace and territorial waters, as well as most of its land borders, since withdrawing troops and settlers from the territory in 2005.

According to the UN, Gaza receives about one-quarter of the supplies that it received in the years before the blockade was tightened in 2007.

The envoy of the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, described the raid as a "terrible, horrible and tragic incident" but said it should not undermine confidence in Middle East peace negotiations.

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