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Israeli commandos on Monday stormed six ships carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists on an aid mission to the blockaded Gaza Strip, killing at least 10 people and wounding dozens after encountering unexpected resistance as the forces boarded the vessels.
The operation in international waters off the Gaza coast was a nightmare scenario for Israel that looked certain to further damage its international standing, strain already tense relations with Turkey and draw unwanted attention to Gaza's plight.
The two sides offered conflicting accounts of what happened.
A reporter on one of the boats said the Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding it, and the Israelis said they only opened fire after being attacked by activists with sticks, knives and live fire.
Israeli security forces were on alert across the country.
The activists were headed to Gaza on a mission meant to draw attention to a 3-year-old Israeli blockade of the coastal territory. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas militants took power there.
"It's disgusting that they have come on board and attacked civilians. We are civilians," said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza movement, which organized the flotilla.
Speaking from the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus, she said she had lost contact with the flotilla at about 3:30 a.m. (0030 GMT).
Israel had declared it would not allow the ships to reach Gaza and had offered to transfer the aid to Gaza from an Israeli port. Israeli naval commandos raided the ships while they were in international waters after ordering them to stop about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Gaza's coast, according to a pro-Palestinian activist in Greece involved in the aid mission.
A Turkish website showed video of pandemonium on board one of the ships, with activists in orange life jackets running around as some tried to help an activist apparently unconscious on the deck. The site also showed video of an Israeli helicopter flying overhead and Israeli warships nearby.
Turkey's NTV showed activists beating one Israeli soldier with sticks as he rappelled from a helicopter onto one of the boats.
The al-Jazeera satellite channel reported by telephone from the Turkish ship leading the flotilla that Israeli navy forces fired at the ship and boarded it, wounding the captain.
"These savages are killing people here, please help," a Turkish television reporter said.
The broadcast ended with a voice shouting in Hebrew, "Everybody shut up!"
The Israeli military said troops only opened fire after encountering unexpected resistance from the activists. Activists attacked troops with knives and iron rods, and one activist wrested a serviceman's weapon.
A total of four soldiers were wounded, including at least one hit by live fire, the army said. Two of the dead activists had fired at soldiers with pistols, the army said.
"They planned this attack," said Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch. "Our soldiers were injured from these knives and sharp metal objects ... as well as from live fire."
The ships were being towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, and the wounded were evacuated by helicopter to Israeli hospitals, officials said. Sporadic clashes were still going on at midmorning.
There were no details on the identities of the casualties, or on the conditions of some of the more prominent people on board, including 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland, European legislators and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 85.
Satellite phones on board the ships were turned off, and communication with a small group of reporters embedded with the Israeli military was blocked.
The Free Gaza Movement is an international group of pro-Palestinian activists that claims the blockade, imposed three years ago after the militant Islamic Hamas group overran Gaza, is unjust and a violation of international law.
Organizers included people affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group that often sends international activists into battle zones, and the IHH, a Turkish aid group that Israel accuses of having terrorist links.
News of the attack sparked violent protests in Turkey, which had unofficially supported the aid mission and has been vocally critical of Israeli military operations against Palestinians in Gaza.
Police blocked dozens of stone-throwing protesters who tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. The CNN-Turk and NTV televisions showed dozens of angry protesters scuffling with Turkish police and shouting, "Damn Israel."
The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the Israeli raid and said it was summoning the Israeli ambassador for an "urgent explanation." It says Israel violated international law and will suffer consequences.
The flotilla of three cargo ships and three passenger ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists was 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 to the territory's 1.5 million residents.
"We did not want to see confrontation," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Ontario at the time of the raid.
"We made repeated offers to the boats that they come to the (Israeli) port of Ashdod unload the humanitarian cargo, and we guaranteed to pass all humanitarian items through the crossings to the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, they rejected our offers and chose the path of confrontation."
The head of the Gaza Hamas government, Ismail Haniyeh, condemned the "brutal" Israeli attack.
"We call on the secretary-general of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, to shoulder his responsibilities to protect the safety of the solidarity groups who were on board these ships and to secure their way to Gaza," Haniyeh told The Associated Press.
The violent takeover threatened to deal yet another blow to Israel's international image, already tarnished by war crimes accusations in Gaza and its three-year-old blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
The flotilla began the journey from international waters off the coast of Cyprus on Sunday afternoon after two days of delays.
After nightfall Sunday, three Israeli navy missile boats left their base in Haifa, steaming out to sea to confront the ships. Two hours later, Israel Radio broadcast a recording of one of the missile boats warning the flotilla not to approach Gaza.
"If you ignore this order and enter the blockaded area, the Israeli navy will be forced to take all the necessary measures in order to enforce this blockade," the radio message continued.
This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008.
Israel has allowed 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 latest flotilla was the largest to date.
This program aired on May 31, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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