Greece bars boats leaving Greek ports for Gaza

AP News
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Posted: Jul 01, 2011 5:28 PM
Greece bars boats leaving Greek ports for Gaza

American protesters on a boat bound for the Gaza Strip were escorted back to shore Friday, as Greece announced it was banning vessels heading to Gaza from leaving Greek ports.

The secretive attempt by the activists to head out to sea ended in failure after authorities in inflatable speedboats raced after them after their vessel tried to sail without permission from the port of Perama near the Greek capital, Athens.

"We shall overcome," the activists sang as security personnel watched from their boat just 10 meters away, according to updates protesters posted on the Internet during a brief standoff.

Greek officials appealed to them to turn around, arguing that it was not safe to continue, but activists responded that it was not safe in port because of fears of alleged sabotage of their vessels, organizers said.

On Thursday, an Irish ship, the MV Saoirse, said it had to abandon plans to set sail from the Turkish town of Gocek because of what it called Israeli sabotage. Earlier this week, activists said the propeller of a Swedish ship in a Greek port was sabotaged. Israel has not commented on the reports.

The activists were seen being escorted by a Coast Guard vessel and arriving back at the coast, according to Associated Press journalists at the scene.

The Greek government action delivered a major blow to a flotilla of nine Greek and foreign-flagged vessels and several hundred activists who had said they want to break Israel's sea blockade and deliver aid to the Palestinian territory.

The setback followed a week of administrative delays that organizers attributed to Israeli pressure on Greece, which is mired in an economic crisis and has grown closer to Israel as it seeks more foreign investment.

Israel says its sea blockade stops weapons from reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants who control Gaza, and had warned it would stop any attempt to circumvent its restrictions. A year ago, nine activists on a Turkish boat died in an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla, with each side accusing the other of starting the violence.

In Jerusalem Friday, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich claimed that according to intelligence information a son-in-law of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, Hamoud Tareq, was among the organizers of the flotilla.

She said that Tareq is active in the Islamic militant Hamas movement and other terror groups.

The U.S., EU and Israel shun Hamas as a terror group.

Greece's Civil Protection Ministry said coast guard authorities were ordered to take "all appropriate measures" to implement the ban. It also said the "broader maritime area of the eastern Mediterranean will be continuously monitored by electronic means for tracking, where applicable, the movements of the ships allegedly participating" in the flotilla.

Greece as well as the United States had previously urged activists not to proceed with the flotilla, saying it could lead to confrontation and noting that there were other means of aid delivery. The protesters, however, rejected the option of funneling aid through Israeli channels and described the sea blockade as a form of incarceration for the Palestinians.

Flotilla organizer Vangelis Pissias condemned the Greek ban on Friday and argued the government had no legal grounds to block private vessels that were heading to international waters from its ports.

"The efforts to sail will continue," he said.

In Paris on Friday night, around 100 protesters held banners outside the Greek Embassy proclaiming "Gaza Let the Boats Pass" and "French Boat for Gaza." Two French boats were in the flotilla.

Michelle Sibony, a spokesperson for the French Ships for Gaza group, said "We don't understand how a European state calling itself democratic can prevent citizens from going aboard a boat that they purchased and sail in international waters without ever approaching Israeli territory _ without arms, without threats. What right do they have to stop us?"

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he had no confirmation of actions taken by the Greek coast guard, but reiterated the U.S. position that the flotilla was a "bad idea." He said the transport of aid to Gaza could be facilitated by the international community through established channels.

"I don't think it's a freedom of navigation, freedom of the sea issue. These boats are trying to make a political statement. If they want to get assistance to Gaza there are ways to do it," Toner said at a news conference in Washington.

The American vessel, dubbed "The Audacity of Hope" after the title of a book by President Barack Obama, was intercepted about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) out at sea, vessel spokeswoman Jane Hirschmann told reporters in Athens.

She said they prepared a pasta meal at one point during the standoff with the Greek coast guard.

The American protesters posted an audio clip on Twitter in which they could be heard shouting at the Greek vessels: "We are unarmed civilians... We want to be able to go on our mission to Gaza."

The passengers included Ann Wright, a former U.S. Army colonel who later worked for the U.S. State Department. She resigned from the U.S. mission in Mongolia in protest in 2003 as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq loomed.

Also on board was Ken Mayers, a 74-year-old retired major in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Ridgely Fuller, who described herself as a "suburban housewife" and social worker. The youngest passenger was 22-year-old Max Suchan, who said he learned how to swim only a few weeks ago in preparation for the sea voyage.

One-third of the passengers on the American boat were Jewish, and nearly two-thirds were women, half of them over 50 years old, according to organizers.

Israel imposed a blockade on the Palestinian territory after Hamas overran it in 2007. It eased restrictions on its land blockade of Gaza after the international uproar over the deadly raid on the flotilla last year. Egypt recently lifted its own blockade of Gaza at the Rafah crossing, though cross-border traffic is still slow.

The flotilla activists said they were peaceful, but Israel has alleged they are in collusion with Hamas, viewed as a terrorist group in the West.

Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Sohrab Manemi in France, and Darko Bandic in Perama, Greece, contributed.