Turkish NGO takes step back in row over new Gaza flottilla project

Head of aid group admits there is a "political dimension" to the decision.

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ISTANBUL // A Turkish aid group has decided to scale back its involvement in the planned convoy of aid ships to Gaza this month, a move likely to defuse tensions.

The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, or IHH, was the Islamic Turkish organisation at the forefront of last year's flotilla, in which nine activists died when Israeli soldiers raided the ship as it tried to break the blockade of Gaza.

The IHH, which Israel accuses of being a militant Islamist group, said yesterday its flagship, the Mavi Marmara, would not participate in the new flotilla. The group said a few IHH activists will join the trip on board the ships of relief organisations from other nations.

Speaking in Istanbul, Bulent Yildirim, the IHH president, said "technical reasons" forced the organisation to cancel the trip of the Mavi Marmara.

The ship, a former passenger ferry, has become a symbol for the fight against what the IHH and many Turks see as an illegal and brutal Israeli policy in Gaza.

It was the Mavi Marmara that was attacked by Israeli commandos on May 31 last year. The plight of civilians in Gaza under Israel's blockade is an emotional issue for many Turks, and the IHH says 15,000 Turkish volunteers have applied to sail on the Mavi Marmara.

Mr Yildirim said he was sorry the Mavi Marmara was not going but said the ship was not seaworthy at the moment. He also referred to the situation at the Turkish-Syrian border, where thousands of refugees from Syria have sought refuge. The IHH has sent several tonnes of aid to the area. "We have another problem now, and that is Syria," Mr Yildirim said.

The new flotilla, consisting of 10 ships organised by Western European groups, is going ahead without the Mavi Marmara, but its political significance will be greatly reduced by the absence of the Turkish ship.

Dror Feiler, a Swedish spokesman for the organisers of the "International Coalition of Freedom Flotilla II" initiative, said the ships would sail from several European ports on June 25.

Serkan Nergis, a spokesman for the IHH, said in an interview that some IHH activists would be on board of the European ships that would set sail from the United Kingdom, France and Greece.

Mr Nergis added that the decision about how many Turkish activists would sail depended on the European groups sending those ships.

The decision by the IHH is likely to be welcomed by the Turkish government, which had applied subtle political pressure on the group by asking it to delay the second flotilla, while insisting that Ankara would not prevent the new flotilla from sailing.

Turkish-Israeli relations have been in crisis since the attack on the Mavi Marmara, with Ankara demanding an official apology for the attack and compensation payments to the relatives of the nine victims by Israel. The Israeli government has rejected both demands.

Turkey has said repeatedly it wants to overcome the crisis and restore a working relationship with Israel, a close partner of Ankara for decades.

Earlier this month the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told a Turkish newspaper the recent opening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip had created a new situation for the people of Gaza.

"The aid flotilla must wait until it becomes clear what happens after Egypt's opening of the Rafah border crossing and how Israel will see the new government that is to be formed in Palestine," Mr Davutoglu told the Hurriyet daily on June 5. He was referring to plans by Fatah and Hamas to create a Palestinian unity government.

Mr Yildirim stressed that technical damage inflicted on the Mavi Marmara during last year's Israeli attack was the reason for the decision to take a low profile in the new flotilla.

He said the Mavi Marmara may sail to Gaza again at some point in the future, but admitted that the decision had a political dimension.

"It is not us, but technical conditions that have given the world a chance," he said.