Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gaza-bound ship carrying supporters of Palestinian terrorism escorted to Ashdod after takeover in Israeli territorial waters

ASHDOD, Israel (AFP) - A Gaza-bound ship of activists and MPs which was boarded by Israeli troops, arrived late Saturday at Ashdod port under naval escort, ending the latest bid to reach the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

More than 10 hours after it was taken over by Israeli naval commandos in international waters, the Finnish-flagged Estelle docked at Ashdod harbour in southern Israel, escorted there by two naval vessels, an AFP correspondent said.

The takeover ended the latest attempt by pro-Palestinian activists to breach Israel's tight maritime embargo on Gaza which prohibits all naval traffic in and out of the coastal territory.

"There was no violence," an Israeli military spokeswoman told AFP, saying troops had taken control of the 53-metre (174-foot) vessel and were taking it back to Ashdod port in southern Israel. "The passengers did not resist."

On board the ship are 17 passengers, among them five parliamentarians from Europe and a Canadian former lawmaker, organisers said. It was also carrying a shipment of humanitarian aid and 30 doves, which the passengers had been intending to release on arrival in Gaza.

"We've heard nothing since they told us they had come under attack," said Victoria Strand, a Stockholm-based spokesman for Ship to Gaza-Sweden. "We believe they have just passed into Israeli territorial waters."

Earlier, Strand told AFP that the vessel had "come under attack" at 0830 GMT after being approached by navy vessels some 38 nautical miles off the Gaza coast.

The military said the boarding was carried out only after "numerous calls to the passengers onboard" went unanswered.

"As a result of their unwillingness to cooperate and after ignoring calls to change course, the decision was made to board the vessel and lead it to the port of Ashdod," the military said, indicating that troops "did not need to use force."

On arrival at Ashdod, the passengers would be handed into police custody and then onto the immigration authorities for immediate deportation.

The takeover of the MV Estelle was quickly denounced as "piracy" by Gaza's Hamas rulers.