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Irish ship sails into the eye of the storm

ISRAEL was last night giving no guarantee about the safety of the Irish crew on board the ship sailing to deliver its aid cargo amid an international crisis.

The 'MV Rachel Corrie' is now heading for a showdown with the Israeli navy within days as it attempts to breach a blockade of Gaza.

It had been due to join an international aid flotilla that was intercepted by Israeli commandos on Monday, leading to at least 10 deaths -- and triggering international outrage.

The five Irish crew members said last night they were "more determined than ever" to reach Gaza with their aid cargo of 550kg of bagged cement, 150kg of medical equipment (including a CT scanner) and a further 57kg of printing paper, schoolbooks and toys.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin confirmed to the Dail last night that he had received no guarantee from Israeli authorities that the 'Rachel Corrie' would be given safe passage.

"In terms of the 'Rachel Corrie', we have received no assurances other than that the ambassador has conveyed to us that the Israeli government does not want conflict or confrontation with the 'Rachel Corrie'. So one would hope that a different mindset will prevail," he said.

The Israeli embassy was also remaining silent last night, meaning that there is no guarantee that the vessel, which is due to enter Gazan waters in the coming days, will not be attacked or forced to land at an Israeli port.

But Mr Martin warned the Israeli government he would take "appropriate diplomatic action" if the ship was not allowed through -- and won the support of all parties in the Dail for his stance last night.

"We will be watching this situation very closely and it is imperative that Israel avoid any action which leads to further bloodshed," he said.

The Dail last night passed an all-party motion calling for an independent international inquiry to be carried out into the killings by Israeli commandos at least 10 peace activists on board the aid flotilla.

The motion also called on Israel to release the seven Irish citizens seized from a convoy of ships carrying aid to Gaza.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen backed up the message by saying Israel "did not have a leg to stand on" when it came to detaining the Irish citizens and warned there would be "serious consequences" if the Irish crew members of the 'Rachel Corrie' were harmed.

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Speaking from the ship, former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday said it was a chance to do something worthwhile to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

"We are just hoping that having caused the loss of life they will see the wisdom of allowing this humanitarian cargo boat through," he added.

And another crew member, former Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, said the aim was to go to Gaza "to say to the people that we stand with you". The remaining crew members are electrician Derek Graham and his wife Jenny Graham, of the Free Gaza Movement, and filmmaker Fiona Thompson.

The Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Zion Evrony, has previously said that the 'Rachel Corrie' would not be allowed to enter into Gaza -- and would be forced to land at the Israeli port city of Ashdod instead.

The diplomatic options open to the Government if the crew was prevented from reaching Gaza include expelling Ambassador Evrony from Ireland, withdrawing the Irish ambassador to Israel from Tel Aviv or backing calls to impose international sanctions on Israel.

Mr Martin condemned Israel's "disdain for international law" and its attempts to brand peace activists on the aid flotilla as "terrorist fellow travellers".

He also said the blockade amounted to collective punishment of the population of Gaza and was counter-productive.

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