Greece blocks Gaza flotilla boat

AP News
|
Posted: Jul 04, 2011 2:09 PM
Greece blocks Gaza flotilla boat

A boat taking part in a flotilla seeking to break Israel's Gaza Strip sea blockade tried to leave the southern island of Crete Monday but was turned back by Greek forces, as the Athens government warned that lives could be lost if the mission goes forward.

The coast guard stopped the boat shortly after it set sail without permission from the port of Agios Nikolaos in northeastern Crete, and towed it back into port, the Greek Merchant Marine Ministry said.

David Heap, a Canadian passenger, said by telephone from the boat that there were 43 people on board, and more than 30 of them were Canadian. Others were from Italy, Belgium, Denmark, German, Turkey and Australia.

Greece last week banned all boats participating in the Gaza flotilla from leaving port, citing security concerns after a similar flotilla last year was raided by Israeli forces, leaving nine activists on a Turkish boat dead. The Greek foreign ministry has offered to deliver the humanitarian aid the activists want to take to Gaza.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras noted the attempt to break the blockade comes at a delicate time in the Middle East. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party and Hamas have been trying to end a four-year rift that left the Palestinians with rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza.

"Greece is taking a responsible stance and dealing with a particular situation. And this situation says that there is an immediate danger to human life by participating in this attempt," Delavekouras said. "This is something that arises from experience. I think we all remember the tragic events we had last year. The region doesn't need this at the moment."

Israel says it imposed the blockade in 2007 to stop weapons reaching Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. Israel eased its land blockade after an international uproar over last year's raid on the Turkish boat.

The vessel that attempted to leave Monday, dubbed the Tahrir after the Cairo square that became a center of protest against the Egyptian government this year, was carrying dozens of Canadians, activist Dror Feiler said.

Feiler accused Greece of doing "dirty work" for Israel by blocking the vessel.

"One more time, they have shown that Europeans and other citizens are not able to move freely in the Greek peninsula," he said.

Heap said the Greek Coast Guard and "special forces" had boarded the vessel after it had sailed several kilometers out to sea. He said the Greek forces told the passengers that they were carrying out orders, and activists responded that those orders were illegal under international law.

"They were met with, on our side, nonviolent resistance," said Heap, a linguistics professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. The boat was towed back to the harbor, and activists were still on board in the evening.

Heap said the boat's original Greek crew was not on board when the boat attempted to leave Greece, and that the vessel was piloted by a group of "international volunteers."

"This is an unpopular move in Greece," he said. "The Greek people want to help Gaza."

Earlier Monday, activists on a French boat, the Louise Michel, unfurled the sails and revved the engine _ but did not attempt to move from their position docked at a marina near the port of Piraeus _ in protest of the Greek ban to sail.

"We are Europeans, we are here in Europe, and we are just saying that we are under (blockade) in Europe," said the boat's captain, Alain Connan. "That is absolutely not acceptable."

On Friday, Greek authorities stopped the Audacity of Hope, a vessel carrying American activists, after it attempted to set sail without permission from near the port of Piraeus outside the Greek capital. The boat's American captain was arrested and is to appear in court Tuesday.

Greece's foreign ministry said Monday it would contact flotilla organizers about its offer to deliver the activists' aid.

"The hope is that we will be able to go forward. For that reason we will come into contact with all the boats to explain to them how we can arrange to transport the aid from Greece," said foreign ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras.

"Greece is taking a responsible stance and dealing with a particular situation. And this situation says that there is an immediate danger to human life by participating in this attempt," Delavekouras said. "This is something that arises from experience. I think we all remember the tragic events we had last year. The region doesn't need this at the moment."

Israel has pledged to thwart any attempt to reach Gaza by sea; it says aid deliveries can occur through its own established channels.

____

Christopher Torchia in Athens and Darko Bandic in Piraeus contributed.