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Published: Saturday June 5, 2010 MYT 10:59:00 AM
Updated: Saturday June 5, 2010 MYT 6:52:28 PM

Israeli forces seize Rachel Corrie and tow it to Ashdod

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman demanded Saturday that Israel ensure the safety of all the humanitarian activists onboard Rachel Corrie.

JERUSALEM: Israeli forces seized a Gaza-bound aid vessel without meeting resistance on Saturday, preventing it from breaking an Israeli maritime blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory days after a similar effort turned bloody.

The military said its forces boarded the 1,200-ton Rachel Corrie cargo ship from the sea, not helicopters.

The takeover stood in marked contrast to a violent confrontation at sea earlier this week when Israeli commandos blocked a Turkish aid vessel trying to break the blockade.

At the time, Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters and a clash with passengers left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said Saturday's takeover took only a few minutes and that the vessel was being taken to Israel's Ashdod port.

The Malaysians on board are veteran journalist Shamsul Akmar, lawyer Matthias Chang, Parit MP Nizar Zakaria, activist Ahmad Faizal Azumu, TV3 crew members Halim Mohamed and Jufri Junid.

The Irish delegation includes Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and former United Nations assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday.

Due to mechanical problems, the Rachel Corrie set off later.

The ship is funded, among others, by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s NGO Perdana Global Peace Organisation.

The Irish ship - named for an American college student who was crushed to death by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting Israeli house demolitions in Gaza - was carrying hundreds of tons of aid, including wheelchairs, medical supplies and cement.

The standoff has raised international pressure on Israel to lift the 3-year-old blockade that has plunged the territory's 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty.

Activists on board the boat had said they wouldn't resist if Israeli soldiers tried to take over their vessel.

This latest attempt to breach the blockade differs significantly from the flotilla the Israeli troops intercepted on Monday, killing eight Turks and a Turkish-American after being set upon by a group of activists.

Nearly 700 activists had joined that operation, most of them aboard the lead boat from Turkey that was the scene of the violence.

That boat, the Mavi Marmara, was sponsored by an Islamic aid group from Turkey, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief.

Israel outlawed the group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas. The group is not on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations, however.

By contrast, the Rachel Corrie was carrying just 11 passengers from Ireland and Malaysia, whose effort was mainly sponsored by the Free Gaza movement, a Cyprus-based group that has renounced violence. Nine crew were also on board. - AP

Below is the runup to the seizure:

5.30pm: The Israeli military says its forces have seized Rachel Corrie, preventing it from breaking an Israeli maritime blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory. The military says its forces boarded the 1,200-ton cargo ship from the sea, not helicopters, and that they did not encounter resistance. The ship is being towed to Ashdod.

4.40pm: Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman demanded that Israel ensure the safety of all the humanitarian activists onboard Rachel Corrie. “Malaysia also demands that Israel not take any drastic and violent military action on the unarmed passengers of the Rachel Corrie.”

“All the activists on board the Rachel Corrie should be given the necessary assistance to ensure their safety. Malaysia also calls on Israel to ensure a safe passage for the vessel to Gaza to deliver the humanitarian cargo. In this regard, Malaysia urges the International Community to persuade Israel to allow the humanitarian vessel to reach Gaza safely,” he said in a statement Saturday.

3.10pm A senior Israeli military spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, says Israeli troops will board Rachel Corrie if it does not change course to Ashdod port in southern Israel.

"Our soldiers will board you if you refuse to change course. We are ready to use force to defend ourselves," she told the ship. The message was broadcast on Israel public radio.

The aid ship is about 28 nautical miles from the Gaza coast, still in international waters. The exclusion zone extends 20 miles from the shore.

3.00pm: Perdana Global Peace Organisation's executive director Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir tells Al Jazeera in an interview that the Israelis can board the ship to inspect the humanitarian aid and then "let us go to Gaza."

2.25pm: AP reports that the Israeli navy has established radio contact with Rachel Corrie. "You are approaching an area of hostilities which is under a naval blockade," the military said in a transcript of excerpts of its communication with the ship. It urged the boat to divert to Israel's nearby Ashdod port, where cargo would be unloaded and transferred to Gaza if it passed a security inspection, but the ship rejected the invitation, the military said.

2.00pm: Repeated calls to Rachel Corrie by satellite phone remains unanswered. It is the only way to contact the people on board, says Sufi. Communications appear to be cut.

AMMAN: Three Israeli warships are flanking Gaza-bound aid ship Rachel Corrie with six Malaysians on board and 13 others as it approaches the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian territory.

Clarifying earlier reports that the ship had been intercepted, journalist Shamsul Akmar, who is on board the Rachel Corrie, told NGO Perdana Global Peace Organisation representative in Kuala Lumpur Sufi Yusoff that the Rachel Corrie had not been boarded.

Neither have the Israeli ships hailed the Rachel Corrie, Shamsul told Sufi at about 11am.

AP says Israeli military have denied that their forces have taken over the aid ship.

The aid ship is about 50 miles (80.5km) from Gaza. On Monday, the Israeli commandos had stormed another aid ship, the Turkish Mavi Marmara, when it was 65km from Gaza in international waters.

Nine activists were killed in that raid and the flotilla of six ships were seized, triggering international outrage.

Related Stories:
‘They’re coming home on Sunday’
12 M’sians freed by Israel en route home: Anifah
Groups slam Israeli attack on aid ships
Twelve Malaysians arrive in Jordan
Volunteers fought Israelis with water and sticks
Malaysians on board Rachel Corrie determined to complete Gaza aid mission
Israeli commandos storm aid ships
Volunteers to Gaza subject to strict security measures

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