Australia: Fury follows Israel's deadly attack on aid flotilla

Sydney Morning Herald:

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has condemned the use of violence during a deadly raid by Israeli commandos, and called for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted.

At least nine people died on Monday when Israeli forces attacked a humanitarian flotilla on its way to the Palestinian territory.

‘‘The Australian government condemns any use of violence under the sorts of circumstances that we have seen,’’ Mr Rudd told reporters in Canberra today.

‘‘Furthermore, we are deeply concerned about the loss of life which has occurred.’’

One Australian was shot in the leg in the incident and another two - Fairfax journalists Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty - aboard the flotilla were unharmed but are being detained by the Israelis.

A further two Australian women were also confirmed as travelling with the convoy, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith told Parliament today.

The flotilla, carrying humanitarian supplies, was trying to break through an Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Mr Rudd called for removal of the blockade.

‘‘We believe that the people of Gaza .... should be provided with humanitarian assistance.’’

Mr Rudd reiterated his government’s call for Israel to undertake an immediate and independent inquiry into the incident and provide the results to the UN Security Council.

‘‘If the Israeli authorities, the Israeli government, do not do that, then consideration should be given to what other form of inquiry occurs.’’

Mr Smith described the attack as a "a terrible and shocking incident".

He told parliament this afternoon that the two Australian women who were aboard the flotilla have been transferred to Beersheva prison and Australian officials are expected to gain consular access to them today, Tel Aviv time.

The Australian man shot in the leg has undergone surgery in hospital, and had been visited by Australian consular officials last night.

Mr Smith said he expected photographer Geraghty to receive consular assistance today, while the Irish embassy in Israel will gain access to McGeough.

Public radio in Israel is repoprting today that 480 pro-Palestinian activists captured in the deadly commando raid have been detained and a further 48 will be expelled.

Those detained were being held at the southern Israeli prison of Ashdod, while the other 48 were being taken to Ben Gurion international airport to be sent back to their home countries, said the report.

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, said the raid was shocking while the Coalition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, said the deaths were deeply disturbing.

Australian officials were also pressing for the easing of restrictions to Gaza for aid and humanitarian assistance, he said.

Israeli television reported a high number of casualties than the Israeli government, saying up to 19 people were killed and 60 injured.

It is understood Geraghty and McGeough are in an Israeli detention facility at Ashdod and were expected to be taken to another detention facility, about 70 kilometres away, in Beersheva.

Herald editor Peter Fray gave a press conference this afternoon, saying he understood the pair were safe, in prison but declining to be deported. He urged Israeli authorities to let them do their jobs and return their equipment.

Israeli security forces were on level-three alert yesterday, one below a state of emergency, amid concerns of rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas militants in Gaza and from Hezbollah across Israel's border with Lebanon.

The US "deeply regrets" the loss of life, the White House said. It was "working to understand the circumstances", spokesman Bill Burton said.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said he was shocked and called for an investigation. Countries across Europe summoned Israel's ambassadors to explain. Ambassadors from the 27 EU countries will hold emergency talks in Brussels.

However, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, offered his "full backing" to Israel's military forces.

"The Prime Minister … inquired about the well-being of the wounded," his office said in Ottawa, where Mr Netanyahu was meeting the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, expressed regret over the deaths but called the flotilla a "political provocation" by anti-Israel forces.

Ankara responded with fury, recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv and warning the assault would have "irreparable consequences" to bilateral ties.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, said plans for three military exercises with Israel had been scrapped.

Greece, which had dozens of nationals in the convoy, also pulled out of joint military exercises with Israel.

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, denounced it as a massacre and called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League.

That organisation's chief, Amr Moussa, described the attack as a crime against innocent activists.

"We condemn this crime, taken against a humanitarian mission and people," he said. "They were trying to help people. They were not on a military mission. Everyone should condemn this."

Israel blamed those on board for the deaths, accusing the protesters of attacking the commandos with "deadly violence".

Several hours before the commandos boarded, the Israel Defence Forces warned the ships via radio to turn around.

"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 message said.

A statement from the Israel Defence Forces said the protesters fired on the commandos, who returned fire in self-defence.

The IDF statement said two pistols were found on the vessels, stolen from its commandos.

Last night at midnight, Sydney time, three of the six boats had landed at the Israeli port at Ashdod.

- with Georgina Robinson and agencies