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Rachel Corrie aid ship seized by Israeli navy near Gaza

One of the last ships on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, the Irish-owned MV Rachel Corrie, has been seized by the Israeli navy.

The ship, named after an American woman killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, was intercepted in international waters, about 20 miles from Gaza's shore and was being escorted to the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod, the military said.

The military said Saturday's takeover began at 9am GMT and took just minutes.

Footage provided by the Israeli military showed three small navy vessels pulling up to the Rachel Corrie.

In a second segment, footage from an Israeli aircraft hovering about the cargo ship showed the activists sitting down in the middle of the top deck.

Military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said the ship's captain had gathered the passengers in one area of the vessel, presumably to avoid violence.

She said commandos clambered onto the boat by sea, instead of descending from helicopters as occurred on Monday when nine activists were killed.

Communications to the Rachel Corrie had been cut earlier in the day, so satellite phones were not operating during the takeover and activists weren't reachable.

Israeli warships had tailed the boat since early morning, determined not to let it reach Gaza despite the international outrage over Monday's deadly raid.

Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza group that organised the trip, described the takeover as "another outrage to add to the nine murdered" and denied Israeli claims that troops had been invited aboard.

Berlin, who spoke from the group's Cyprus office, said her organisation would send more ships to Gaza, and that it has been contacted by four captains volunteering for the next mission.

The MV Rachel Corrie, carrying some 750 tons of of aid including medical and school supplies, was meant to have travelled with the original convoy but was delayed by mechanical trouble which activists say they suspect was sabotage carried out by Israel.

Activists on the vessel, including Belfast-born Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, insisted they would not resist if Israeli soldiers tried to take over their vessel.

Irish minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Micheál Martin, TD said yesterday: “The Irish government has made clear that it believes that the Rachel Corrie should be allowed to proceed to Gaza and to unload its humanitarian cargo. Those on board the Rachel Corrie have indicated that they are ready to accept inspection of their cargo at sea, prior to docking in Gaza. However, the Israeli government has stated that it is not willing to allow any breach of their naval blockade of Gaza.

"The Irish government urges the Israeli Government to ensure the transfer to Gaza of the entire cargo of the Rachel Corrie, including cement which is urgently needed for the reconstruction of Gaza. The government continues to call on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Pending that, Israel should immediately facilitate the import into Gaza of all goods, other than weapons.”

Diplomatic fallout and protests across Europe and the Muslim world have increased pressure to end the embargo Israel imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power in Gaza three years ago.

The blockade has plunged the territory's 1.5 million residents deeper into poverty and sharply raised Middle East tensions as the US makes a new push for regional peace.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet the Irish boat would not be allowed to reach Gaza. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "We have made it clear to the Irish and others, no ship will reach Gaza without a security inspection."

This latest attempt to breach the blockade differs significantly from the flotilla the Israeli troops intercepted on Monday, killing eight Turks and an 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 in 2008 because of alleged ties to Hamas.

By contrast, the Rachel Corrie was carrying just 11 passengers, whose effort was mainly sponsored by the Free Gaza movement, a Cyprus-based group that has renounced violence.

Ms Maguire said the group would offer no resistance if Israeli forces come aboard. "We will sit down," she said. "They will probably arrest us... but there will be no resistance."

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