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Updated: June 3, 2010 20:30 IST

Flotilla activists return to heroes’ welcome in Turkey

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Turkish activists who were deported by Israel two days after a deadly naval raid by Israeli forces in the Mediterranean Sea, are surrounded by friends and family members at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul early Thursday. Photo: AP.
Turkish activists who were deported by Israel two days after a deadly naval raid by Israeli forces in the Mediterranean Sea, are surrounded by friends and family members at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul early Thursday. Photo: AP.

Hundreds of activists detained by Israel during a raid on a flotilla carrying aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip arrived back in Istanbul to a heroes’ welcome on Thursday.

Another batch of deported activists arrived in Greece after the Greek government decided to send a military C—130 aircraft to take them home. The 31 Greeks, two French and one American landed at the military airport of Elefsina, near Athens.

Eight identified as Turks

Eight of the nine people killed in the pre—dawn raid on Monday were laid to rest in Istanbul in the afternoon, their coffins draped in Turkish and Palestinian flags. Turkish media reports said the eight have been identified as Turks. The ninth victim is an American of Turkish origin.

The fatalities occurred as Israeli naval commandos stormed the Gaza—bound six—ship flotilla in international waters, after it had refused orders to change course and sail to the Israeli port of Ashdod, to unload its aid for shipment to Gaza.

While the takeover of five of the ships proceeded without incident, commandos battled iron bar—and club—wielding activists on the sixth vessel, the Marvi Marmara, which sailed under the Turkish flag.

Most of the 460 activists who returned to Turkey after being deported by Israel were Turks, but the group also included six Germans. They were greeted by Turkish Deputy Premier Bulent Arinc and several other officials.

"Diplomacy succeeds"

“For now, diplomacy has succeeded. However, Israel will be asked within the framework of laws to pay for the murders it has committed,” Mr. Arinc said. “We have all condemned this unfair, cruel and barbaric attack which was a total act of piracy,” he added.

The flotilla activists were feted at a large rally held in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.

Several thousand people, many of them waving Palestinian and Turkish flags, attended the rally organized by Insan Yardim Vakfi (IHH), the Turkish non—governmental organization that was the main sponsor of the flotilla.

“We are here for our brothers in Palestine,” said Abdulkadir Sen, a 25—year—old English instructor who was at the rally. “No Muslim can be silent about cruelty to other Muslims.” The raid unleashed a wave of international condemnation against Israel, especially in Turkey, whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that once close Israel—Turkey dies were in danger of becoming undone.

“Israel is about to lose its most important friend in the region if it does not change this mentality,” he told a meeting of the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly in Ankara.

“As long as children are killed, schools and hospitals are bombed and volunteers carrying humanitarian aid to the region are massacred, prosperity and stability cannot be ensured in the region,” he added. Mr. Erdogan also pledged that Turkey “will not ignore and turn a blind eye in the face of this brutality.”

Lieberman unfazed at threat to ties

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, was unfazed at the threat to the ties — which have been rocky since Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip in early 2009 — telling Israel Radio that “the entire change in the relationship between us and Turkey is due to the internal change in Turkish society. ” “The change in Turkish rhetoric is due to the internal situation and internal tensions and changes within society,” he said, pointing out that Iran too, had been an important Israeli ally until the Islamic revolution in 1979.

The head of Insan Yardim Vakfi, meanwhile, said his organization will continue to try and break Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza.

“We will continue until the embargo is lifted, and we will make the entire world take action from the sea and land with bigger convoys to end the embargo,” IHH chairman Bulent Yildirim said at Istanbul’s airport, after returning from Israel.

Mr. Yildirim had been detained by Israeli authorities after being taken from the Mavi Marmara.

He said several passengers that were on board are still missing.

The activists defended themselves against the Israeli special forces with iron rods, Mr. Yildirim said. He conceded that activists also seized some of the Israelis’ weapons, but said they threw them overboard rather than using them. “Even if we had used them, it would have been in self—defence,” he said.

Islamist Hamas movement's demands

The Islamist Hamas movement, which rules in the Gaza Strip, said meanwhile that it would only allow the goods seized by Israel to enter the salient if certain conditions were met. These included the release from Israel detention of all the detained activists and the transfer to the Gaza Strip of all, instead of just part, of the goods taken off the ships.

Israel said on Wednesday it has released the activists from the flotilla. Seven people, including two Turks, an Australian and an Indonesian, wounded in the takeover, are still in hospital, however, and three — an Irishman, an Australian woman and an Italian man — remain in Israeli custody.

An Israeli spokesman, Major Guy Inbar, said eight trucks packed with goods taken from the flotilla are stuck at the Kerem Shalom crossing point, waiting to enter the Strip.

He denied claims by Ahmed al—Kurd, Social Welfare Minister in the Hamas government, that Israel has confiscated goods, saying the unloading of the containers from the flotilla was still proceeding.

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