- aid - Gaza Strip - Hamas - Israel - Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Palestinian camps - refugees
REUTERS - The Israeli navy boarded a freighter trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip on Thursday and escorted it into the port of Ashdod, Israeli officials said.
It was the first apparent attempt by a foreign ship carrying aid to reach the Palestinian enclave since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.
No weapons were found aboard the Tali, a cargo vessel flying the flag of the West African state of Togo, Israel radio said. It said those aboard would be returned by land to Lebanon, where the ship sailed from.
Israeli military sources said those aboard included a veteran Palestinian rights campaigner, Syrian-born Archbishop Hilarion Capucci of the Melkite Church of the Eastern Rite.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that "the navy boarded the vessel, stopped it" and ordered it to Ashdod.
Doha-based Al-Jazeera television quoted a correspondent aboard the vessel as saying the Israeli navy had fired shots then boarded the Tali and beaten passengers and crew.
"They are opening fire towards the vessel ... there are Israeli soldiers who have actually boarded the vessel," said Salam Khoder. "Three of them are pointing their weapons at us ... They are beating those on the vessel, they are beating and kicking us."
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the action.
"Those who commit massacres against innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza will not stop themselves from assaulting, in front of the world, a ship carrying humanitarian supplies," he said. "I express my utmost condemnation for this blatant attack."
An Israeli army spokesman said no gunfire was used in taking control of the vessel and most of the 20 passengers aboard were from media organisations.
Archbishop Capucci, who calls himself a "Palestinian in spirit," was arrested in 1974 in Israel on charges of smuggling weapons from Lebanon to Arab guerrillas. He left prison three years later on the direct intervention of the late Pope Paul VI.
The Vatican promised Israel that he would stay out of the Middle East and transferred him to South America for a while. Capucci has extensive contacts with Arabs and Muslims. He was allowed to visit American hostages held in Tehran in 1979.
The Tali left Lebanon and docked in Cyprus before sailing for Gaza. The captain was told repeatedly that he would not be allowed to take it into Gaza waters, the army spokesman said.
Confronted on Wednesday by Israeli navy vessels, the ship's captain said he was changing course for the Egyptian port of El Arish on the Mediterranean coast, 45 km (30 miles) west of the Gaza-Egypt border.
An Egyptian official said the ship requested permission to dock and was "told to stop in the waiting area". But on Thursday, the ship started heading towards Gaza, Israel said.
"It entered Gaza territorial waters in a suspicious way," said the army spokesman. "They were not acting in accordance with regular naval procedures which raised suspicion they may be smuggling something or endangering Israeli security."
Al-Jazeera said the ship, Lebanese Brotherhood, was carrying humanitarian aid from Lebanese and Arab charities destined for those made homeless by Israel's devastating offensive.
The shipment was organised by the Palestinian National Committee Against the Siege in cooperation with the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement.
There have been several attempts to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip over the past months by sympathizers of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians. Some boats with peace activists were allowed to dock, others were warned off.
Israel maintains tight control of Gaza's access to the outside world, insisting it will not permit cash, steel or any other materials that could be used by Hamas Islamists in control of the Gaza Strip to make weapons for use against Israelis.