Israeli troops board Gaza aid ship

Israeli troops boarded an aid ship heading for Gaza today, but there was no violent confrontation.

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Israeli troops boarded an aid ship heading for Gaza today, but there was no violent confrontation, a military spokeswoman said. "Our forces boarded the boat and took control without meeting any resistance from the crew or the passengers. Everything took place without violence," the spokeswoman said. The move came after the Rachel Corrie refused to respond to four requests from the navy to head for the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, and stayed its course for the Gaza Strip, which is under an Israeli naval blockade. Activists on board the ship had previously indicated they would not heed Israeli calls to change course, and would continue to head for their destination - although they were prepared to let their cargo be inspected. The ship was intercepted by the Israeli navy in international waters shortly after dawn but the troops held back from boarding the vessel for several hours. The apparently peaceful ending to the stand-off comes just five days after the Israeli naval commandos raided another aid ship heading for Gaza in a bungled operation which left nine foreign activists dead and scores wounded, among them seven Israeli soldiers.

Speaking to the BBC earlier today, spokeswoman Avital Leibowitz said the Rachel Corrie had been warned it would be boarded by Israeli forces if it did not change course and head for Ashdod port. "Our soldiers will board you if you refuse to change course ... We are ready to use force to defend ourselves," she said, quoting the message relayed to the vessel, in remarks which were also broadcast on Israel public radio.

The warning was issued as the aid-laden ship ignored calls to head for Ashdod and pressed on towards Gaza, risking a potentially-explosive confrontation with the Israeli navy. "We indicated several times to the organisers aboard the ship that they should head to the port of Ashdod as there is a blockade in force on the Gaza Strip, but they ignored our appeals and are continuing to head towards Gaza," a military spokeswoman said earlier.

Earlier, a spokesman for the Gaza-based welcoming committee said the Rachel Corrie had been intercepted and all communications with the ship cut. "Several Israeli boats surrounded them between 30 and 35 miles off Gaza and prevented them from reaching Gaza," Amjad al Shawa said after speaking by telephone with passengers on the boat.

In a last communique activist Jenny Graham, who is on board the Rachel Corrie, told organisers the vessel was being approached by two Israeli warships. Ms Graham said equipment on board had been "jammed by the Israeli navy, and that they expected their satellite phone to be jammed soon as well", the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign said, adding that it was not able to determine the ship's location when it was intercepted.

Israel had warned it would stop the Rachel Corrie - a 1,200-tonne cargo ship named after a US activist killed in 2003 as she tried to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home. The vessel had been due to join a flotilla of ships which tried to run the blockade earlier this week but was held up for technical reasons. *AFP