Gaza City: More than nine passengers died on Monday when Israeli forces stormed a boat carrying pro-Palestinian activists bound for Gaza, the Israeli Army said, sparking fury from Turkey and Palestinian leaders.
The bloody ending to the high-profile mission to deliver supplies to Gaza came on the eve of a meeting in Washington between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"From an initial report, more than 10 passengers were killed," an Israeli Army spokesman said in what was the first official confirmation of deaths on board the convoy.
He did not put a figure on the number of those injured in the deadly raid which occurred early morning in the waters off Gaza, but said among them were four soldiers, one of them severely.
He said live ammunition was used by both sides.
Unconfirmed media reports from Hamas`s Al Aqsa television said up to 20 passengers had been killed, of whom nine were Turkish nationals.
Media reports also said that senior Arab Israeli Islamist leader Raed Salah had been severely injured in the clashes, in which Gaza-based Hamas TV station said up to 20 people were killed.
According to Israel`s private channel 10 television, Israeli marine commandos had opened fire after being attacked with axes and knives by a number of the passengers on board the aid ships, the television said, without giving the source of its information.
Israel`s Army radio said between 10 and 14 people had been killed in clashes which broke out after the passengers allegedly tried to grab weapons off the naval commandos who tried to storm one of the boats.
It was not clear whether the clashes took place on just one of the six boats making up the aid convoy.
Police said Israeli security forces were put on high alert to handle any "possible disturbances" among the country`s Arab Israeli population in the wake of the deadly naval raid.
Turkey`s Foreign Ministry warned that the raid on the flotilla, which included Turkish vessels, may lead to "irreparable consequences" in bilateral ties.
"We strongly condemn these inhumane practices of Israel," a written statement said.
"This deplorable incident, which took place in open seas and constitutes a fragrant breach of international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations," it said.
Earlier in the day, Turkish police blocked dozens of stone-throwing protesters who tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul over reports of the Israeli attack.
CNN-Turk and NTV showed dozens of angry protesters scuffling with Turkish police guarding the consulate in downtown Istanbul.
"Damn Israel," the protesters shouted.
The Israeli ambassador was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry after the incident, a Turkish diplomat said.
"The ambassador (Gabby Levy) was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. We will convey our reaction in the strongest terms," the diplomat, who asked not to be named, said.
The Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip Monday urged Arabs and Muslims to "rise up" in front of Israeli embassies across the globe in protest against Israel`s deadly raid.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas slammed the killings as "a massacre", while Arab League chief Amr Mussa said the raid was a "crime" against a humanitarian mission.
The Israeli military censor ordered a block on all information regarding those injured or killed during the storming of the ship.
Gaza`s Al-Aqsa television showed footage of black-clad Israeli commandos descending from helicopters and clashing with activists, as well as several wounded people lying on the deck of the ship.
The ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, were on the last leg of an aid mission to deliver some 10,000 tonnes of supplies to Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.
Hamas reacted angrily to the deadly raid.
"We call on all Arabs and Muslims to rise up in front of Zionist embassies across the whole world," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, using the Arabic word `intifada`.
Ismail Haniya, the Islamist movement`s prime minister in Gaza, slammed the "ugly attack" in a statement in which he called for "the United Nations to protect the activists" on board the boats.
Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement which organised the convoy, said she was told of 10 dead by an Israeli lawyer for the group but had had no contact with the ships.
"How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this?" she said.
"Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?”
"We have two other boats. This is not going to stop us."
Israeli media said some marine commandoes were slightly hurt. Captured ships were sailing toward Israel`s southern Mediterranean port of Ashdod, media said.
Israel had at the weekend slammed as "illegal" the convoy`s attempt to break the Gaza blockade and warned it would intercept the ships, tow them to the Ashdod port and detain the activists before seeking to deport them.
It labelled the convoy a media stunt, insisting the humanitarian situation is stable in Gaza despite reports to the contrary from aid agencies and offering to deliver the supplies through its own land crossings.
"This is a provocation intended to delegitimise Israel," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Saturday.
The convoy set off in international waters off Cyprus on Sunday in defiance of an Israeli-led blockade of the Gaza Strip and warnings that it would be intercepted.
The flotilla was organised, among others, by a Turkish human rights organisation. Turkey had urged Israel to allow it safe passage and said the 10,000 tonnes of aid the convoy was carrying was humanitarian.
Turkey, long Israel`s best Muslim friend and a key ally in a hostile Middle East, was highly critical of Israel`s attack on Gaza 18 months ago, in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed.
Relations between the two states are now distinctly chilly and bloodshed at sea will do nothing to improve them.
France24 television aired video of a woman in a Muslim headress holding a stretcher with a large bloodstain on it. Below her lay a man, apparently injured, in a blanket.
CNN showed pictures of a commando apparently rappelling down a rope and clashing with a man wielding a stick. Other TV images showed what appeared to be rubber boarding launches.
What’s in flotilla?
The flotilla, which includes three cargo ships and three passenger ships, is trying to draw attention to Israel`s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. The boats are carrying items that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials. The activists said they also were carrying hundreds of electric-powered wheelchairs, prefabricated homes and water purifiers.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that after a security check, permitted humanitarian aid confiscated from the boats will be transferred to Gaza through authorised channels. However, Israel would not transfer items it has banned from Gaza under its blockade rules. Palmor said that for example, cement would be allowed only if it is tied to a specific project.
This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008.
Israel has let ships through five times, but has blocked them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military offensive against Gaza`s Hamas rulers in January 2009. The flotilla bound for Gaza is the largest to date.
Some 700 pro-Palestinian activists are on the boats, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor.
(With Agencies’ inputs)