Israel releases last of activists seized on aid ships
Israel released Wednesday the last of the 632 foreign activists seized earlier this week on board a flotilla carrying aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip, and held in a prison in the south of the country, dpa reported.
Organizers of the aid convoy, for their part, said they intended sending more ships to the beleaguered salient, amid claims that Israel may have sabotaged the initial flotilla.
"All of the detainees in the Israel Prison Service have left and were released, with no exception. All are at Ben Gurion Airport," a spokeswoman for Israel Prison Service (IPS) told the German Press Agency dpa.
Many of them were Turks flown home in two passenger planes that had been waiting for them at the airport near Tel Aviv.
Another 123 nationals from Arab states, among Jordanians and Kuwaitis, were earlier bussed to Israel's Allenby border crossing over the River Jordan with Israel's eastern neighbour over night.
The spokeswoman vehemently denied claims by some of the detainees who on returning home accused the Israelis of humiliating and maltreating them while in custody and denying them water.
"The IPS treated the detainees like it treats all detainees in the IPS, which means that they received basic necessities during the few days that they were held by us: They received mineral water. They received food. They received fresh clothes, including undergarments and some of them even trainers. They received visits by diplomats, representatives of the Red Cross and lawyers. Some of them even thanked us for the treatment they received," she said.
The six-ship flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli Navy in international waters before dawn Monday, and seized by Israeli naval commandos when the ships rejected an order to change course and proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, instead of the Gaza Strip.
Nine of the activists on board the largest ship, the Mavi Maramra, were killed as the Israeli commandos battled to take overt the vessel from activists who resisted them forcibly.
One of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the flotilla, told dpa Wednesday that more ships would be sent.
The Irish cargo-ship MV "Rachel Corrie" could reach Gaza within two weeks, said Greta Berlin. Among the activists on board was Irish Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire as well as former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday.
Berlin refused to give the exact position of the vessel as she said the movement suspected Israel had been trying to sabotage the aid flotilla bound for Gaza.
The "Rachel Corrie" had been set to join the convoy headed by the Turkish vessel Marvi Marmara but had suffered sudden damage, forcing it to interrupt its voyage at Cyprus. Another two vessels, the Challenger I and Challenger II, had also malfunctioned suddenly, Berlin said.
Inspections of the ships had shown that the electric wires may have been tampered with, Berlin said, adding they were still awaiting the results of a full investigation.
Her remarks followed comments by Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai on Israel Radio, clearly hinting Israel took covert action to sabotage the convoy.
Asked whether there had been alternatives to an assault, Vilnai said, "All possibilities had been considered," adding: "The fact is that there were fewer than the 10 ships that were supposed to participate in the flotilla."
The Irish cargo ship is loaded with 1,200 tons of aid earmarked for Gaza, including 560 tons of cement, 100 tons of medical equipment among them CAT scanners, a dental office and 200 electric and regular wheelchairs, as well as papers, sports gear and crayons for children.
"We're determined to continue with sending boats to Gaza," Berlin said.
She rejected Israel's charges that the activists on board the Mavi Marmara had initiated the violence by attacking the Israeli commandos with iron rods, chairs and knives. The Israelis had started to shoot into the crowd for no justifiable reason, she said.
"And for anyone to be so awful as to say that some sticks are a match for machine guns, stun guns, teargas cannisters and a heavily armed Israeli militia that's boarding our ships in international waters has a serious issue with who is the real terrorist," she said.
Israel also said it dispatched several truckloads of the aid on board the flotilla to Gaza over land via the Kerem Shalom crossing, including medical equipment, wheel chairs, and some food, Major Guy Inbar told dpa.
Sacks of concrete and metal rods that had been on board were not transferred to Gaza. Israel alleges militants could use them to build fortifications and weapons.
Israel placed the Gaza Strip under siege in June 2006, after militants based there launched a cross-border raid and snatched an Israeli soldier, who is still being held somewhere in the salient.
The blockade was tightened even further in June 2007, after gunmen from Hamas routed security personnel loyal to the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, and took control of the enclave by force.
Although Israel permits truckloads of aid to enter the Strip, it keeps tight control of what is allowed in