Hague presses Israel as activists return home

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The Independent Online

Foreign Secretary William Hague called on Israel to agree to a "credible and transparent" investigation into the deadly raid on an aid flotilla as activists whose ship was blocked from delivering relief supplies to Gaza returned home today.

Speaking alongside French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Mr Hague said there should be an "international presence at minimum" in an inquiry into the deaths of nine activists on a Turkish aid ship taken over by Israeli commandos last Monday.

Today, a group of Irish aid workers were heading home after being deported from Israel after their ship, MV Rachel Corrie, was seized by Israeli forces.

The boat was the last remaining vessel of the Gaza Freedom flotilla, a 40-nation effort to break through Israel's illegal blockade.

Former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday, Nobel peace prize winner Mairead Maguire, first mate Derek Graham and his wife Jenny, from Mayo, and Dundalk film-maker Fiona Thompson were among the Irish members of the relief mission on board. They are due to land at Dublin Airport at 11.20am.

The 1,200-tonne MV Rachel Corrie - named after an American college student crushed to death by a bulldozer in 2003 while protesting against Israeli house demolitions in Gaza - is docked in Ashdod with hundreds of tonnes of aid.

No resistance was encountered when it was intercepted around 30 miles from Gaza on Saturday morning.

Eleven passengers and nine crew were taken to Ashdod and on to a detention centre near Tel Aviv where they waived their right to appeal against an order of deportation.

The peaceful takeover came after massive international pressure on the Israeli government following the military-led action on the aid flotilla.

Armed commandos stormed several aid vessels trying to reach the territory last Monday - leaving nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

The UK Government has called on Israel to lift the three-year-old blockade that has left the territory's 1.5 million residents facing deep poverty.

Freda Hughes, of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), added: "This blockade, which has gone on for over three years, amounts to collective punishment of 1.5 million people - condemned to face enforced and avoidable poverty, human rights abuses and appalling hardships - often just because of where they were born.

"It is the duty of every right-thinking individual of conscience to ensure that such inhuman treatment is no longer allowed and is no longer ignored by the world."

Mr Hague, who was in Paris yesterday for a meeting with his French counterpart, said Europe is keen "to participate in solutions" to Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Calling for an end to the blockade, Mr Kouchner said the EU could play a bigger role in helping aid get in and keeping weapons out of the Hamas-controlled territory.

He said: "We can check the cargo of ships heading toward Gaza - we can do it, we want to do it, we would gladly do it."

Earlier yesterday, Israel rejected calls for an international inquiry to investigate the raid.

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