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At least nine activists have been killed after Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army says. Israel says its soldiers were shot at and attacked with weapons; the activists say Israeli troops came on board shooting. The activists were attempting to defy a blockade imposed by Israel after the Islamist movement Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007. Linda Gradstein reports.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. At least nine international activists have been confirmed killed and dozens wounded when Israeli commandos this morning stormed a convoy of aid ships headed for Gaza. Each side accuses the other of provoking the violence. The event has sparked a diplomatic crisis for Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned meeting with President Obama and headed home. Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: In the pre-dawn darkness, Israeli soldiers called on the Turkish ship the Marmara to give up its efforts to dock in Gaza and sail to an Israeli port instead.
MALE VOICE 1: Mavi Marmara, you are approaching an area of hostilities which is under a Naval blockade. The Gaza area coastal region and Gaza harbor are closed to all maritime traffic.
GRADSTEIN: When the ship refused to change course, Israeli commandos boarded the ship from both the sea and the air. What happened next is still not clear. Israel television broadcast grainy footage that looked like an activist stabbing a soldier. Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, said the activists started the violence.
DANNY AYALON: The armada of hate and violence in support of Hamas terror organization was a pre-meditated and outrageous provocation. The organizers are well known for their ties to global jihad, Al Qaeda and Hamas. The organizers intent was violent. Their method was violent. And the results were, unfortunately, violent. Israel regrets any loss of life.
GRADSTEIN: The Israeli Army posted video online. One shows steel bars, slingshots and glass marbles found on board. Another shows Israeli troops being attacked as they rappelled onto a ship. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to North America, passing up a meeting tomorrow with President Obama. Speaking in Canada, Netanyahu said the activists deliberately attacked the first soldiers that came on the ship.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: They were mobbed. They were clubbed. They were beaten, stabbed; there was even a report of gunfire. And our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives or they would have been killed.
GRADSTEIN: Organizers of the flotilla had a different story. Audrey Bomse said the activists did not have guns.
AUDREY BOMSE: All the boats were carefully inspected by the government before they left the port of departure. There's no evidence there was shooting. There was live streaming coming from the boat. You don't see any - - going past the Israelis. You see them coming out helicopters and shooting immediately. And if there was shooting at them from such close range, one of the soldiers would surely have been shot.
GRADSTEIN: In addition to the international activists who were killed, dozens were wounded. Ten Israeli soldiers were also wounded too, seriously. Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, said the flotilla's goal was to help the one and a half million residents of Gaza who have been suffering under an Israeli blockade. She said the ships were carrying 10,000 tons of badly needed goods, including cement, wheelchairs and water purifying systems. Speaking to an Israeli radio interviewer, she dismissed Israel's offer to transport the goods via the Ashdod port.
GRETA BERLIN: You would never have delivered any of those supplies to Gaza because all of the supplies that we are bringing in are on your list of 2,000 items that the people of Gaza cannot have to rebuild their society. We have cement, paper, water filtration equipment, the things that will help the people of Gaza rebuild.
GRADSTEIN: Over the course of the day, Israeli troops began dragging the six ships into the Ashdod port. The activists onboard were given a choice, deportation or jail. Most chose the latter. Whatever happened, the event has become a diplomatic nightmare for Israel. Several countries, including Switzerland, Spain and Germany, called for an international investigation. The White House issued a statement "deeply regretting the loss of life". Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a massacre and announced three days of mourning. Perhaps most disturbing to Israel was the reaction of Turkey, where the largest of the ships departed. Turkey recalled its Ambassador to Israel and issued a strongly worded protest. Turkey is the largest Muslim country that has relations with Israel. And Israeli officials said they hoped relations could be repaired. For The World, I'm Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.