Israel expels activists as Gaza pressure grows

Israel has expelled latest group of activists who had tried to reach Gaza.

Jerusalem: Israel on Monday threw out the latest group of activists who had tried to breach its blockade of Gaza as pressure grew for an international probe into the naval raid that killed nine Turks.

Diplomatic heavyweights Britain and France added their voices to growing calls for an independent investigation into the raid by Israeli commandos on a flotilla of ships bound for the impoverished Palestinian territory last month.

"We think it is very important that there is a credible and transparent investigation... there should be an international presence at minimum," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague at a press conference with his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept "a credible and impartial inquiry" into the raid on the convoy in international waters on May 31, the French leader`s office said.

But Israel hit back, insisting it was capable of holding itself to account.

"Israel is a democracy. Israel has the ability and the right to investigate itself, not to be investigated by any international board," Michael Oren, Israel`s Ambassador to Washington, said on US television.

"We are rejecting the idea of an international commission," he added.

Netanyahu`s office issued a statement on Sunday confirming he had spoken with Sarkozy as well as US Vice President Joe Biden, who is to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday.

"During these talks, the Prime Minister stressed that Israel had acted in this affair like any country threatened with thousands of rockets and missiles," Israel`s statement said, referring to attacks on its territory by militants in Gaza.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is to travel to New York on Monday to brief Israeli diplomats posted in North America on the government`s position on the aid flotilla, his ministry said.

Seven of the 19 activists from another aid ship, the Rachel Corrie, which tried to run the Gaza blockade last week were expelled from Israel to Jordan on Sunday. The remaining 12 were due to be flown home overnight, officials said.

Five Irish nationals, including Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire, were expected to leave on a flight to Dublin on Monday.

Until then, they were waiting in a special section of the airport, but were not being allowed to use their mobile phones, immigration officials said.

Israeli forces took control of the boat on Saturday as it tried to reach Gaza, in a peaceful operation that contrasted with the May 31 raid when commandos stormed a Turkish boat packed with more than 600 passengers.

Israel says its commandos only resorted to force after being attacked as they reached the deck, but activists claim the soldiers started firing first.

As tensions in the region continued to rise, an aide to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic republic`s elite Revolutionary Guards would be prepared to escort cargo ships on blockade-busting missions.

Bureau Report