Israel extends flotilla investigation powers

Israel's cabinet backs a plan to grant broader powers to the committee investigating a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Israel's cabinet has backed a plan to grant broader powers to the committee investigating a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, an official statement said. "The government has unanimously decided to extend the powers of the Tirkel Commission," it said. "The commission of inquiry will be joined by two experts and will hear witnesses speaking under oath." Israel set up the Tirkel Commission in the wake of growing global pressure to look into its botched operation of May 31 in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists while intercepting a fleet carrying aid to Gaza.

Last week, the committee's chairman, Yaakov Tirkel, threatened to resign unless his panel was given wider powers. The retired judge had asked for two assistants to work with the three-man panel, whose deliberations are being monitored by two foreign observers. According to the statement, two experts would be added to the panel, and it would be able to hear witness testimony under oath. But Mr Tirkel's other requests - which reportedly included a request that the panel be upgraded and transformed into a government commission of inquiry with the power to recommend sanctions against political and military leaders - were not mentioned.

Last week, the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he saw no reason not to agree to Mr Tirkel's demands, but he made clear that the extended mandate would not allow the committee to hear any direct testimony from troops involved in the raid. Mr Tirkel's inquiry is being conducted in tandem with another probe by the military, known as the Eiland Committee, which is due to complete its work by July 11.

Israel says its commandos used force after they were attacked with sticks and stabbed as soon as they landed on the deck of the Mavi Marmara Turkish passenger ferry. But those on board the ship insist the troops opened fire as soon as they landed. * AFP