19 killed as Israeli units raid aid ship

ASHDOD, Israel - Naval commandos can be seen rappelling down from helicopters and then pointing assault rifles in some of the dramatic footage of Israel's deadly pre-dawn raid on a Gaza-bound Flotilla yesterday.

Israel says the troops returned fire after they were attacked with live rounds, knives and clubs, but the organisers of the Gaza blockade-busting bid insist the soldiers started shooting the moment they hit the deck.

Only limited footage of the incident has been broadcast as communications with the six ships participating in the flotilla appeared to have been scrambled during the operation some reports say left 19 passengers dead and 36 wounded. Several soldiers were also reported to have been wounded.

In images posted on the Internet and broadcast on several television stations including the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera network, bandaged men can be seen lying on stretchers in the shaky images that show complete chaos aboard what appears to be the Turkish ship "Mavi Marmara".

An Al-Jazeera correspondent on board the ship said the Israeli soldiers continued shooting even though a white flag of surrender had been raised. He said hundreds of Israeli troops attacked the ships and that the captain was among those wounded.

Indications are that most, if not all, of those killed were aboard the Marmara, which carried most of more than 700 pro-Palestinian activists who hoped to make their way to the Gaza Strip.

Military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said the situation aboard the large ferry, owned by the IHH Islamic charity, was different from that on the other five ships.

A Greek vessel was also among those that came under attack.

Greta Berlin said the last message received before the raid said: "All is calm, the Israeli warships are on our bow, let's sleep."

Then a message posted on Twitter by the pro-Palestinian activists said the Israeli military had made contact.

"Intervention is imminent," a message from aboard the Challenger I passenger vessel said.

Next came news from the Mavi Marmara, reporting two people were killed. Later reports indicated that 19 activists had died.

Meanwhile, the South African government yesterday joined the international chorus of condemnation.

South Africa was also probing the possibility that there may have been a South African on board the aid ship bound for Gaza that was attacked by Israeli forces . - Sapa-AFP-Reuters