Israel Navy boats made contact early Saturday morning with a ship headed for the blockaded Gaza Strip, but the vessel refused to change course and sail instead to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The Israeli military spokesman said the ship, the Rachel Corrie, identified itself in response to a navy request, but rejected two calls to make for the Israeli port, about 30 km north of the strip, where its cargo would be inspected and then transferred to the salient.

The Free Gaza organization posted a message on the microblogging website Twitter saying the ship had not been boarded. A later update said all contact with the vessel had been lost. The military also denied early morning reports of boarding.

A spokeswoman for the organizers said three Israeli vessels began shadowing the Rachel Corrie about about several dozen kilometres offshore.

The activists on board have reportedly rejected a plan brokered by Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin to dock at Ashdod port about 30 km north of the Gaza Strip where the aid goods would be unloaded and inspected before being transferred.

They insisted on sailing only to Gaza.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday it would not allow the Rachel Corrie to break its naval blockade of the coastal enclave run by the radical Islamist Hamas movement. “Gaza is still a war zone because of Hamas and there still is a blockade,” spokesman Yigal Palmor told DPA.

Six aid ships with more than 700 international activists en route to Gaza and were forcefully intercepted by Israel on Monday morning.

Nine activists were shot dead and dozens of others were wounded, in addition to seven Israeli soldiers, when the pre-dawn interception turned violent.

Israel placed the Gaza Strip under siege in June 2006, after a Palestinian militia launched a cross-border raid and captured an Israeli soldier, who is still being held captive in the salient.

The siege was tightened a year later, when Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, seized control of the Strip after routing security personnel loyal to the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.

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