Saturday, May 29, 2010

Flotilla set for final leg of Gaza blockade-busting bid

Charlie Charalambous

NICOSIA (AFP) – Hundreds of activists braced on Friday for the final leg of their attempt to bust the Gaza Strip embargo, a bid Israel vowed to defeat, as each side accused the other of violating international law.

Two cargo ships and five smaller boats loaded with thousands of tonnes of supplies and hundreds of passengers steamed towards a rendezvous off Cyprus where they planned to group before setting out for the Palestinian territory. Organisers said an eighth ship, the Rachel Corrie that had left from Ireland, was lagging behind and would travel towards Gaza separately.

The ships will meet in international waters, they said.

"The Cypriot government does not want us to leave from Cyprus. I can only assume pressure was put on them," said Audrey Bomse, a member of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) that organised the flotilla.

A Cypriot government official said of the flotilla that Nicosia had not received any formal request from the Palestinian Authority for humanitarian aid.

Bomse told AFP that a plan to ferry about 25 multi-national MPs from Cyprus to one of the ships also had been abandoned.

"This is a group of MPs waiting to be ferried to another boat. The government said if we kept it quiet we would be able to do it but there was a huge amount of pressure and I suppose they gave in to Israel," she charged.

Bomse added the plan had been modified, and the group would now try to get the MPs on board from the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island.

"We will now have to go to the north and lose the Cypriot and Greek politicians, but we have members of parliament from Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Norway and Bulgaria. We are going to put them on a boat in Famagusta," she said.

Greece and Cyprus regard the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where Famagusta is the main port, as an illegal entity.

Cypriot Communications Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis denied that her government's decision to forbid the flotilla to sail from Cyprus was due to pressure from Israel.

"This was a decision that the Cyprus Republic took by itself, taking into account and weighing up all the facts, the dangers and the threats to its national interest," she said.

Bomse said the new arrangement had now delayed the flotilla's departure for Gaza until later on Friday.

Israel earlier told the ambassadors of Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, and Ireland -- the countries from which the ships set sail -- that it "issued warrants that prohibit the entrance of the vessels to Gaza" and that the flotilla would be breaking international law.

Israel made it clear it intends to halt the vessels and detain the hundreds of people aboard in the port of Ashdod before deporting them.

Bomse suggested this may just be "sabre rattling."

"We are planning on getting there and staying in Gaza for two days," she said.

But Israel has stepped up its warnings in recent days and readied naval forces.

Organisers dismissed the claim that their blockade-busting bid is illegal.

"Most despicably of all, Israel claims that we are violating international law by sailing unarmed ships carrying humanitarian aid to a people desperately in need," the FGM said in a statement.

"These claims only demonstrate how degenerate the political discourse in Israel has become."

Israel imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas -- an Islamist movement committed to the destruction of Israel -- seized power in the impoverished, overcrowded Palestinian territory.

Because of the blockade, only limited reconstruction has been possible in the wake of a devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched on December 27, 2008.

In New York, UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday appealed to all sides to act with care and responsibility.

"We strongly urge that all involved act with a sense of care and responsibility and work for a satisfactory resolution," Ban's spokesman said.

Pro-Palestinian activists have landed in Gaza five times, with another three attempts unsuccessful since their first such sea voyage in August 2008.

To date, the aid has been largely symbolic, but organisers say the flotilla now under way is laden with 10,000 tonnes of aid, ranging from pre-fabricated homes to pencils.

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