Israel seizes Lebanese ship heading for Gaza

Israel is denying allegations that it fired at a Lebanese ship carrying activists and supplies into Gaza after seizing it on Thursday.

Israeli military says a few dozen kilograms of supplies were on board the ship

Israel is denying allegations that it fired at a Lebanese ship carrying activists and supplies into Gaza after seizing it on Thursday.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday the ship was seized by the navy and escorted into the port city of Ashdod.

Journalists from Arab television stations Al-Jadeed and Al-Jazeera aboard the ship reported that the navy fired shots at the vessel. They alleged that after boarding the ship, the Israelis assaulted its occupants.

Other journalists on the ship said they could not provide any pictures of the incident because the Israelis smashed their equipment.

"They are pointing guns against us — they are kicking us and beating us. They are threatening our lives," Al-Jazeera journalist Salam Khoder reported on the broadcaster's website.

An Israeli army spokesman said warning shots were fired in the air when the ship tried to sail toward the Gaza Strip, said Reuters.

"No gunshots were fired on board during the boarding and capture of the cargo boat," the military said in a statement.

All of the ship's 20 passengers will be taken by land to Lebanon after they are questioned by Israeli officials, said Reuters.

Ship attempted return after retreating

The ship had reportedly left Lebanon on Tuesday with 50 tonnes of food and medical supplies into Gaza.

The Al-Jazeera news network reported the aid included medicine, food, human blood plasma and toys, said Reuters. The ship was sent by the Palestinian National Committee Against the Siege and the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement, said the report.

However, the Israeli military said it found about 150 bottles of water and a few dozen kilograms of food and medicine, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. No weapons were found on board, said Haaretz.

One of the shipment organizers, Maen Bashur, told Agence France-Presse news agency that the two Israeli gunboats intercepted the ship Wednesday night while it was in international waters and instructed it to turn back. Both parties agreed that the ship, a Togo-registered cargo vessel,  would sail to the Egyptian port of El-Arish, the Israeli military said.

But Barak said the ship tried to "slip" past the navy into Gaza waters Thursday morning, an account that appears to be confirmed by Bashur.

"The aid boat moved away, but it has been trying since early Thursday to reach Gaza through Egyptian territorial waters," he told AFP.

The Israeli government has enforced a blockade of Gaza in the past months, saying it has to stop money, weapons and materials that can be used by Hamas militants to attack Israelis.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has called for international pressure to be put on Israel to let the supplies through, condemned the action, said Reuters.

"Those who commit massacres against innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza will not stop themselves from assaulting, in front of the world, a ship carrying humanitarian supplies. I express my utmost condemnation for this blatant attack," he said.

The military said the aid supplies aboard the ship would be distributed to the Gaza Strip by land.

The passengers reportedly included 86-year-old Greek Catholic priest Hillarion Capucci, who while serving as an archbishop in Jerusalem was convicted in 1974 by an Israeli court for using his diplomatic status to smuggle arms to Palestinian militants.

The Syrian-born Capucci was jailed, but released three years later at the intervention of the Vatican and deported.

With files from the Associated Press