August 5, 2010 / 2:58 PM / 10 years ago

Israel returns Turkish aid ships seized near Gaza

HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) - Israel released an impounded Turkish aid ship on Thursday on which its navy killed nine pro-Palestinian activists in a botched boarding as they tried to run the Gaza Strip blockade in May.

The converted cruise liner Mavi Marmara was towed out of Haifa port by a Turkish tugboat. Two other Turkish vessels held there and in Ashdod port — the Defn-Y and the Gazze — will follow by Friday, Israeli and Turkish officials said.

The high seas clash severely damaged the Jewish state’s ties with its only close Muslim ally and drew international criticism that forced the Israelis to ease land commerce with Gaza’s 1.5 million mostly aid-dependant Palestinians.

Israel defended the marines’ use of guns in brawls with Mavi Marmara passengers, who it said had endangered the soldiers’ lives by attacking them with iron bars and knives.

But it waived a demand that the Turks sign undertakings not to sail again to Gaza, whose blockade it says curbs Palestinian gunrunning, for the vessels to be repatriated.

An Israeli official said the Foreign Ministry had instead sent Ankara “a message ... expressing Israel’s expectation that Turkey will prevent other Turkish vessels from violating the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.

“The message emphasises that Israel transfers equipment and goods to Gaza on an ongoing basis via the land crossings in a manner that is acceptable to the international community and which is anchored in recognized agreements,” the official said.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official had no immediate comment on Israel’s request. The official said the three Turkish vessels were expected to arrive in Turkey’s Iskendurun port by August 9.

Israel still holds three non-Turkish vessels from the Gaza flotilla that was intercepted on May 31, as well as an Irish cargo ship, the Rachel Corrie, that sailed a few days later.

Writing by Joseph Nasr and Tulay Karadeniz; Editing by Paul Taylor

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