Defiant Gaza-bound boats prepare to set sail

Organizers of the international flotilla seeking to bring aid to the Gaza Strip say they expect some of their boats in Greek harbours to lift anchor Monday, despite Athens's ban on sailings to the Palestinian territory.
The flotilla ship Audacity of Hope is escorted by a Greek coast guard vessel to a port near Athens on Friday after it tried to embark for the Gaza Strip. (Darko Bandic/Associated Press)

Organizers of the international flotilla seeking to bring aid to the Gaza Strip say they expect some of their boats in Greek harbours to lift anchor Monday, despite Athens's ban on sailings to the Palestinian territory.

Stéphan Corriveau of Montreal, an organizer of the Canadian-run ship the Tahrir, which was boarded by Greek coast guards Friday before it could set sail, said the flotilla would get underway Monday and has a plan to get around the Greek policy.

Unidentified demonstrators from the U.S. stand aboard the Audacity of Hope, moored in Perama, Greece. Passengers in the 10-vessel aid flotilla include media, politicians and activists. ((Darko Bandic/Associated Press))

The ships from Greece will first convene in a Mediterranean port outside the country to satisfy the Greek requirements, before heading to Gaza, Corriveau said.

Greece announced Friday it was banning vessels heading to Gaza from leaving Greek ports. The same day, it intercepted the U.S.-run Audacity of Hope as the boat made a run for the open sea from a port west of Athens, and boarded the Tahrir  while it was docked nearby.

Ten boats carrying several hundred people, including reporters, from nearly 20 countries are partaking in the convoy, which organizers say aims to challenge Israel's sea blockade of Gaza but which critics have called a provocation. The vessels are departing from ports in Greece, Turkey and France. 

An activist from the Audacity of Hope said Sunday he and other passengers are determined to continue their mission, though they may be delayed from joining the flotilla because their captain remains in custody for trying to sneak out of port on Friday.

"It depends on the Greek government and the authorities and what they intend to do, but if they look at all the facts and statistics and free our captain, we will be on our way very soon," Richard Lopez said. "We still intend on going to Gaza. That's why we came here."

The captain, American John Klusmire, was being held at Piraeus police headquarters and will remain there until a court hearing on Tuesday.

Greece's coast guard said Klusmire faces charges of trying to leave port without permission and of endangering the lives of the boat's 50 occupants. The latter charge is a felony.

Activists accuse Israel of damaging two other ships docked in Turkey and Greece that are part of the flotilla. Israel denies the allegations, though Israeli Information Minister Yuli Edelstein acknowledged Sunday that Israel did use "diplomatic efforts" to give the flotilla "a lot of difficulties."

"I sincerely hope that we won't see the flotilla coming," he added.

In Gaza, government secretary Gen. Mohammad Awad expressed condemnation of the Israeli blockade and called on "the countries of the world" to support the flotilla.

"We call upon the countries of the world and their governments to expose the occupation's crime, in continuing to impose this blockade against the Gaza Strip. We also call upon them to participate in the flotilla, to send a clear message ... that Gaza is still under blockade," Awad said.

A passenger plays a trumpet as others hold banners aboard the Audacity of Hope before it was intercepted by the Greek coast guard. ((Darko Bandic/Associated Press))

Israel says it imposed the Gaza Strip blockade, in place since 2007, to stop weapons reaching the political and militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza and is deemed a terrorist group by the United States, Canada, Israel and the European Union.

Nine activists were killed last year in an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla.

In a statement, the Middle East Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — said it remained concerned about the difficult conditions facing Palestinians in Gaza, but noted "a marked increase in the range and scope of goods and materials" entering Gaza over the last year.

It urged those wishing to deliver goods to Gaza to do so through "established channels," which include Israeli and Egyptian crossings.

The Quartet "urges restraint and calls on all governments concerned to use their influence to discourage additional flotillas, which risk the safety of their participants and carry the potential for escalation," the statement said.

With files from The Associated Press