Gaza aid ship escorted to Israeli port by military

An Israeli swoop on a Gaza-bound aid vessel preventing it from breaking a maritime blockade ended peacefully, the Foreign Secretary said tonight.

The military seized the 1,200-tonne MV Rachel Corrie cargo ship from the sea.

No resistance was encountered and the boat was taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

The bloodless action contrasted with a violent confrontation at sea earlier this week when Israeli forces blocked a Turkish aid vessel trying to reach the territory. Then Israeli commandos descended from helicopters and a clash with passengers left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "I am glad that the interception of the Rachel Corrie has been resolved peacefully."

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations were today held across Britain and Ireland.

Mr Hague added: "We continue to stress to the Israeli government the importance of an investigation that ensures accountability and commands the confidence of the international community, and includes international participation," he said.

"We urgently need to see unfettered access to Gaza to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza and to enable the reconstruction of homes, livelihoods and trade. That is why we continue to press the Government of Israel to lift Gaza's closure."

He will be discussing the matter urgently during visits to European capitals in the coming days.

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

The stand-off has raised international pressure on Israel to lift the three-year-old blockade that has left the territory's 1.5 million residents facing deep poverty.

The MV 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.

The vessel was around 30 miles outside Gaza when it was intercepted.

The crew of the ship had rejected a deal to unload its cargo in Israel and accompany it across the border.

Irish members of the relief mission include former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday, Nobel peace prize winner Mairead Maguire, Derek Graham, who has been on four of the five voyages which docked in Gaza, his wife Jenny, and Dundalk film-maker Fiona Thompson.

Five Malaysians are also on the vessel, captained by Eric Harcus from Scotland.

Sinn Fein Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said Israel's step was unjustified and unacceptable.

"They know the Rachel Corrie and her cargo presents no threat to Israel. The human rights activists on board the boat had made it clear they had no issue with UN officials checking the cargo before they proceeded to Gaza," he said.

Fine Gael Foreign Affairs Spokesman Billy Timmins said the action was wrong and added the Irish passengers should be allowed home without delay.

"I must also reiterate that the blockade is illegal. The international community must continue efforts to have blockade lifted and if Israel is to have no regard for international opinion, the international community must look at ways to increase the pressure," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee said there were "no guarantees" the aid would now be delivered by land by the Israelis once it was unloaded from the vessel.

"They say most of the aid is banned anyway," she added.

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