Gaza flotilla victims buried in Turkey

15Jan

Tens of thousands of angry Turks chanted anti-Israeli slogans at funeral prayers for victims of the Gaza aid flotilla attack, after activists detained in the raid flew home to a heroes’ welcome.

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The Jewish state meanwhile suffered a new diplomatic blow when South Africa recalled its ambassador in protest at Israel’s commando assault in which nine people were killed.

And a new boat carrying Malaysian and Irish activists was set to arrive off Gaza at the weekend.

“Damn Israel! Israel is the angel of death!” chanted the crowd in Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque, as the coffins of eight activists were laid on marble stands, covered with both Turkish and Palestinian flags.

US man among dead

Others in the crowd – estimated by local television to number up to 20,000 – shouted, “We are all soldiers of Hamas,” referring to the Palestinian Islamist movement, which controls the Gaza Strip.

There were also demonstrations in Athens and Salonica in northern Greece, with about 2,000 people taking part, while about 2,000 more protested in Bosnia and up to 300 people in Paris.

During the night about 1,000 people, also shouting slogans against Israel, packed Istanbul airport to greet planes that brought back 485 activists, 19 of them wounded, and nine bodies from Israel.

The dead were eight Turks and a US national of Turkish origin, officials said. All were shot, according to forensic experts quoted by Anatolia news agency.

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul said that ties with Israel “will never be the same” after the attack, adding: “Israel has made the biggest mistake in its history”.

Gaza blockade

But US Vice President Joe Biden said Israel has the right to protect its security by boarding ships heading for Gaza, while adding that Washington would cajole its ally on the plight of the Palestinians.

The White House has so far refused to explicitly single out the Israeli government for blame, although the State Department said it would probe the death of the 19-year-old American who died in the raid.

“The truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know – they’re at war with Hamas… whether or not arms are being smuggled in,” Biden said in an interview on PBS television.

Bulent Yildirim, head of the Islamic charity Foundation of Humanitarian Relief which spearheaded the Gaza aid fleet, said Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately when they stormed the Mavi Marmara ferry, one of six vessels trying to get through the blockade around the Palestinian enclave.

He said activists used iron bars against the Israeli forces “in self defence”. They also seized the soldiers’ weapons but threw them in the sea rather than using them, he added.

‘Self defence’ claim

Israel has said the commandos only opened fire after they came under attack with clubs, knives, guns and other weapons. It said however that the only firearms found afterwards were two pistols taken from soldiers, whose magazines were empty.

Yildrim said the death toll was higher than announced. Separately a Spanish activist on the flotilla, Manuel Tapial, said between 16 and 20 were killed.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas will travel to Turkey on Monday to pay his condolences to the Turkish people and meet Gul.

From Turkey, Abbas will fly to the United States to ask President Barack Obama to make “bold decisions” on Middle East peace when they meet on Wednesday.

Israel rejected a bid by the UN Human Rights Council to set up an investigation, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed that the Middle East Quartet – the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States – join the probe.

Another ship on way

Portugal’s Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Amado called for the EU’s foreign affairs council to debate Israel’s policy on Gaza, in a letter to foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

The blockade was “unsustainable from a humanitarian point of view, but also a road to nowhere from a political perspective, fuelling the radicals and weakening the moderates,” he said.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell said Monday’s “tragedy (…) cannot be allowed to spiral out of control and undermine the limited but real progress that has been made” in the Middle East peace process.

Organisers say another ship was heading for Gaza despite the risk of more violence and could arrive there on Saturday.

The Rachel Corrie, carrying building supplies along with Irish and Malaysian activists, is in the Mediterranean.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah meanwhile called for a mass rally in Beirut on Friday during which he would announce “serious measures”.

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