TURKEY: Raid on Gaza aid ships spark protests; number of casualties are Turkish citizens, reports say
Reports of at least 10 dead and dozens wounded aboard one of the six humanitarian aid vessels headed for Gaza which were violently intercepted by Israel have sparked outrage in Turkey, with early reports indicating that a number of the casualties are Turkish citizens.
An estimated 10,000 angry protesters descended on the Israeli consulate in Istanbul after news broke early Monday morning that Israeli sea commandos had stormed the Mavi Marmara in international waters and opened fire. The BBC reported this afternoon that the ship, which was carrying 10,000 tons of aid to the besieged Gaza strip, is actually owned by the Istanbul municipal government.
Selma Erkal, who says her brother was on the boat, told the English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News that she saw footage in which he appeared to be wounded, but Israel has so far refused to release any details about the identities of those killed and injured. As of Monday night, all six ships were in Israeli custody.
“He had fainted, his head fallen on his chest, and there were people trying to help him,” said Erkal. “We wanted to believe that he is only wounded, but he could also be dead."
Turkey immediately withdrew its ambassador to Israel and canceled all joint military maneuvers, with some officials indicating they would pursue legal action against Israel. Turkish media is predicting the incident will put an end to Turkey's traditional role as a regional mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel's actions have been widely condemned by the international community with Israeli envoys summoned across Europe and protests in a number of cities around the world including Tehran and London. Israel maintains it did not break international law by boarding the vessel in international waters, and that its soldiers acted in self-defense after they were attacked by armed activists.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, says the vessels were all carefully searched before they left Turkey."These boats that left from Turkey and other countries were checked in a strict way under the framework of the rules of international navigation and were only loaded with humanitarian aid," he was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera, adding that there was no one on board "other than civilian volunteers."
Video released by the Israeli military shows activists attacking the soldiers with what appear to be clubs or poles of some kind. Another video released by Israel allegedly show the weapons with the activists used, which included a metal rod, a slingshot and a bag of marbles.
Aynur Akdeniz, who says her husband, Mehmet Ali Akdeniz, 34, was aboard the ship, told the Hurriyet Daily News that the organizers had clearly told participants not to bring any weapons.
"My husband even did not have a pocket knife on him,” she said. “It was a strict rule for all of them not to have anything that might be used as a weapon.”
Unconfirmed reports claim the majority of the casualties are Turks, which, if true, could jeopardize Turkey and Israel's already strained relations. Prime Minister Erdogan has already described Israel's acts as "state terrorism".
The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Monday evening to discuss the storming of the ships.
Israel, for its part, has warned its citizens not to travel to Turkey while emotions run high. Just hours after news of the casualties broke, a man with a Palestinian flag was arrested on suspicion of assaulting an Israeli cyclist competing in a race in northwestern Turkey.
– Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Turkish protesters in Istanbul. Credit: AFP
Video: The Israeli Defense Forces released footage allegedly showing the weapons used by the activists. Credit: YouTube