'Commandos came from out the dark'
Pandemonium breaks out on deck of cruise ship
Published 01/06/2010 | 05:00
MINUTES before violent chaos engulfed the Gaza aid flotilla, a British activist frantically tapped away in the darkness, broadcasting an SOS from his laptop computer.
Kevin Ovenden, aboard the lead ship, the Turkish Mavi Marmara, sensed a tense game of cat-and-mouse in the Mediterranean was about to come to a dramatic climax.
He wrote on his blog: "We are 90 miles away from land -- 22 miles further than the Israeli-decided 68-mile exclusion zone -- but are being approached by an Israeli vessel.
"The Israeli media is reporting that Israel will deploy a very large naval force . . . this is an illegal aggressive move.
"All aboard are prepared. This is a very serious situation and we are calling on everyone to play their part in helping ensure their safety, and that the aid reaches Gaza without difficulty."
The flotilla was the ninth, and largest aid convoy to attempt to break the Gaza blockade in the past three years. But while five had been let through, the most recent attempts were turned back and the flotilla was given warnings it would not be allowed to reach Gaza.
It tried to slow and change course, hoping to prevent a confrontation until daylight, when the Israeli military action could be better filmed by the activists.
But at just after 4.30am, under cover of darkness, the Israelis called for decisive action. Orders were sent for commandos to intercept and take over the ships -- and so began an operation that would claim the lives of at least 10 people, and draw international condemnation.
Just after Mr Ovenden had written about the silhouette of rubber launches and speedboats approaching on the murky waters, barely visible in the darkness, a helicopter began hovering overheard.
The aid armada was still in international waters, but commandos had swarmed around it and targeted the biggest ship, the Marmara.
Thirty or more activists gathered on the top deck and readied themselves for the assault. Hundreds more, who had been sleeping in the lower two decks, were roused by the commotion.
While groups of 10 commandos at a time jumped aboard from their rubber launches, elite troops from the Israeli commando unit Flotilla 13 rappelled down from the helicopter onto the Marmara. Their plan was to land on the top deck, rush to the vessel's bridge and order the captain to stop. They had been ordered to take control of the flotilla peacefully, but the instant they landed, pandemonium broke loose.
Some activists claim the troops -- carrying rifles and handguns, and wearing body armour -- began firing indiscriminately.
However, video footage released by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) suggested they were attacked first with a metal pole, sticks, clubs, and slingshots.
The troops responded by throwing stun grenades, but the explosions whipped up a frenzied atmosphere as the activists believed they were being fired upon.
Television pictures showed activists with sticks bludgeoning an Israeli soldier as he tried to land on the boat.
One commando was grabbed by protesters, who wrestled his handgun off him and allegedly threw him over the edge of the top deck, 30 feet below.
It was the point where the melee descended into bloodshed. The Flotilla 13 troops radioed to their commander for permission to begin shooting. The commander replied: "You can go ahead and fire".
According to one witness, the Israeli journalist Ron Ben Yishai: "The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters' legs."
Shaking television footage showed one man lying unconscious on the deck, while another man was helped away.
A woman wearing a Muslim headscarf was seen carrying a stretcher covered in blood.
Screams were interspersed with sounds of more gunfire.
One unnamed reporter said in a broadcast: "We are being hit by tear gas, stun grenades. We have navy boats on either side and a helicopters overhead. We are being attacked from all sides. This is in international waters, not Israeli waters, not in the 68-mile exclusion zone."
Jamal Elshayyal, a British al-Jazeera reporter on board the Marmara, sent a final report just after the troops had boarded. "Two people have been confirmed killed by the Israeli army, and the organisers on board the Mavi Marmara have now asked all the passengers to go inside. They have raised the white flag.
"Tens of people, civilians, have been injured. There are still sounds of live fire, despite the white flag being raised."
The broadcast stopped with a voice shouting in Hebrew "Everyone shut up" as the reporters were bundled down into the lower decks.
As the disaster unfolded, the airwaves went quiet -- the Israelis had scrambled all mobile phones and satellites -- and the claim and counter-claim began. Israeli authorities gave no details of the injuries suffered by activists. They confirmed that 10 were dead, although sources suggested the figure could be up to 19.
The Israeli military said its troops were deliberately ambushed by activists in a planned attack. At least 10 were injured, one seriously, it said. Two of the dead activists had fired at soldiers with pistols, the army also claimed.
An IDF spokesman said: "We didn't look for confrontation but it was a massive attack. What happened was a last resort."
With the main ship seized and the supporting five boats also captured, the flotilla was guided to the port of Ashdod. The injured and the dead were airlifted to hospitals in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashkelon. The Free Gaza Movement, one of the organisers, said the IDF had started the violence, firing as they boarded the ship.
There were no firearms carried by the activists, it was claimed. Their cargo had included simply 10,000 tons of aid and around 650 activists, including European parliamentarians, women, and children.
The flotilla even had the support of 'celebrity' protesters such as the best-selling author of the 'Wallander' detective novels, Henning Mankell.
As one Israeli television commentator said: "It was always going to be a lose-lose situation boarding an aid armada with commandos. But in a situation where there are so many dead, it is a fiasco from which the fall-out is only just beginning." (© The Daily Telegraph, London)