JERUSALEM, May 31 (Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald/Reuters) - Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza
on Monday and 10 pro-Palestinian activists were killed, triggering a profound diplomatic crisis.
Israel's allies in Europe, as well as the United Nations and Turkey, voiced shock and outrage at the bloody end to a bid by international campaigners to break Israel's blockade
of the Gaza Strip. Its navy stopped six ships ferrying 700 people and 10,000 tonnes of supplies toward the Islamist-run Palestinian enclave.
The UN Security Council was summoned for an emergency session in New York at 1700 GMT. In Washington, however, the United States, Israel's most vital ally, said only that it regretted the loss of life and was looking into the tragedy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
, who was in Canada and expressed full support for the navy operation, cut short a visit to North America that was to have ended on Tuesday with a meeting at the White House with US President Barack Obama.
That meeting had seemed intended to soothe US-Israel ties, which have been strained by differences over recently revived peace talks with the Palestinians. But Obama must also balance relations with Israel
, which is popular with American voters, and those with an outraged Turkey and other Muslim allies.
As the captured foreign vessels were escorted into Israel's port of Ashdod
, accounts remained sketchy of the pre-dawn interception out in the Mediterranean, in which marines stormed aboard from dinghies and rappelled down from helicopters.
Senior Israeli defence officials said 10 activists died on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish cruise ship carrying 581 people, after commandos came under fire, including with weapons that the activists had snatched from the boarding party. Seven of the troops and 20 protesters were injured, the military said.
Israel imposed a communications blackout on those aboard the convoy and other accounts of events were not available. Consular officials were at Ashdod seeking access to detained foreigners.
Some Israeli media cited death tolls as high as 19, but an army spokesman later said he was certain of only 9 deaths.
It was unclear who the casualties were. A senior Israeli naval officer said most of the dead were Turks. But the convoy also featured Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and many Europeans.
The bloodshed sparked street protests and government ire in Turkey, long Israel's lone Muslim ally in the region, which had backed the convoy.
Ankara cancelled joint military exercises and recalled its ambassador. Turkish President Abdullah Gul demanded the troops be punished while Israel said they fired in self-defence.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist views and outreach to Iran and other Israeli enemies are blamed by many in Israel for souring relations, cut short a trip to Latin America.
Israel told its tourists in Turkey to stay in their hotels.
A minister admitted that plans to maintain its blockade on Hamas
, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, while avoiding an international incident had backfired in spectacular fashion: It's going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it, Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Reuters.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
said: What Israel has committed on board the Freedom Flotilla was a massacre. He declared three days of official mourning for the dead.
Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, blamed the activists for the violence and branded them allies of Israel's Islamist enemies Hamas and al Qaeda. Had they got through, he said, they would have opened an arms smuggling route to Gaza.
There was no question of easing the blockade, he said.
Video from the convoy apparently showed a commando shinning down a rope and clashing with a man wielding a stick. The man later appeared to try to stab the marine.
One commando told reporters that he came under fire and was attacked with metal bars and knives as he came down onto a ship from a helicopter around 4 a.m. (0100 GMT). Some activists, speaking Arabic, tried to take marines hostage, he said.
HIGH ALERT, PEACE TALKS IN DOUBT
Israeli forces were on high alert on the Gaza, Syrian and Lebanese borders as well as around Jerusalem
, the occupied West Bank
and Arab-populated areas of northern Israel.
Israel's Arab enemy Syria, which hosts exiled Hamas leaders, called for an emergency Arab League meeting. The Cairo-based League condemned what it called Israel's terrorist act. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it inhuman and Tehran urged the world to isolate Israel.
More worryingly for Israel, its friends also showed little sympathy. The outrage, which included UN condemnation of civilian deaths in international waters, sounded at times more uniformly hostile to the Jewish state than during its offensive in Gaza
18 months ago, which killed 1,400 Palestinians.
Israel said it launched that war to curb Hamas rocket fire
on its towns. But it has found it harder to win understanding for an embargo limiting supplies to 1.5 million people in Gaza, including cement the UN says it needs to repair bomb damage.
Senior UN officials responsible for the aid on which Gaza depends said: Such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza.
Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement that organised the convoy, said: How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this? Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?