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Israel seizes Gaza freighter

ASHDOD, Israel (Reuters) - The Israeli navy boarded a freighter trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip on Thursday and escorted it to the port of Ashdod where 20 passengers were being questioned, the military said.

It was the first apparent attempt by a foreign ship carrying aid to reach the Palestinian coastal enclave since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.

A military official said humanitarian aid found on the ship would be transferred to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Video footage released by the army showed boxes piled up in one corner of the ship and no weapons were found.

Israel Radio said those aboard the Tali, a cargo vessel flying the flag of the West African state of Togo, would be returned by land to Lebanon, from where the ship sailed. The military official said the ship’s 20 passengers, including 10 journalists, were being questioned.

“Once the questioning is completed we will make a decision on their fate,” a military spokesman said.

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A military source said the passengers also included a veteran Palestinian rights campaigner, Syrian-born Archbishop Hilarion Capucci of the Melkite Church of the Eastern Rite.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the navy had initially allowed the ship to sail to Egypt but its captain made a sudden U-turn towards Gaza’s shore after which the navy boarded the vessel and ordered it to sail to Ashdod.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera television quoted a correspondent aboard the vessel as saying an Israeli navy ship had fired shots and then sailors boarded the Tali and beat passengers and crew.

“They are opening fire towards the vessel...there are Israeli soldiers who have actually boarded the vessel,” said correspondent Salam Khoder. “Three of them are pointing their weapons at us...They are beating those on the vessel, they are beating and kicking us.”

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Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the action.

“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,” he said. “I express my utmost condemnation for this blatant attack.”

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At the United Nations, Lebanese envoy Caroline Ziade called on the Security Council for international action to press Israel to release the ship immediately. Arab League Ambassador Yahya Mahmassani condemned the “act of piracy” and said he had received assurances of U.N. efforts to get the ship returned.

The army said no gunfire was used in taking control of the vessel and most of the 20 passengers aboard were from media organisations. But it said warning shots were fired in the air when the ship tried to sail towards the Gaza Strip.

Al Jazeera said the ship, dubbed Brotherhood by activists, was carrying humanitarian aid from Lebanese and Arab charities for those made homeless by Israel’s devastating offensive.

It was sent by the Palestinian National Committee Against the Siege in cooperation with the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement, and the cargo included about 60 tonnes of medicine, food and toys, plus 10,000 units of human blood plasma which requires constant refrigeration.

Israel maintains tight control of Gaza’s access to the outside world, insisting it will not permit shipment of cash, steel or other materials that could be used by Hamas Islamists, who control the enclave, to make weapons.

Sympathizers of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians have tried several times in past months to break the Israeli blockade. Some boats with peace activists were allowed to dock, others were warned off.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Joseph Nasr and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Nadim Ladki in Beirut and Inal Ersan in Dubai; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Angus MacSwan