Israel in rush to free aid activists

Deadly raid focuses worldwide attention on legality of blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Israel moved yesterday to fast-track the release of hundreds of peace activists arrested in its raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid flotilla, as the UN's human rights body announced it would launch an independent investigation into the deadly attack. A steady flow of buses ferried detainees to land borders and the main airport. Israel claimed all 680 of those held prisoner would be released by the end of the day after a heated debate among government ministers on Tuesday night.

The decision reversed earlier plans to prosecute some activists, as Israel tried desperately to repair the diplomatic damage caused by Monday's botched commando raid. Accusing the government of carrying out the repatriations amid great secrecy, Israeli human rights groups said they believed some 50 activists, some of them severely injured, were still being held incommunicado. The UN Human Rights Council, meanwhile, condemned Israel's raid on the aid flotilla and set up an independent international investigation into the attack.

The criticism came in a resolution proposed by Pakistan, Sudan and the Palestinian delegation and was adopted with 32 countries voting in favour, three against and eight abstentions. The resolution "condemns in the strongest terms the outrageous attack by the Israeli forces against the humanitarian flotilla of ships which resulted in the killing and injuring of many innocent civilians from different countries".Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, was under increasing pressure to investigate the raid as he prepared to meet Israeli, Turkish and Arab officials yesterday. Mexico's top UN diplomat warned that the incident could spawn a "new escalation of violence in the Middle East".

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was defiant while addressing Israelis on television yesterday, accusing international critics of "hypocrisy", and defended the raid in which at least nine activists were killed. Mr Netanyahu said he would continue the blockade, claiming that to lift the embargo would turn Gaza into a base for Iranian missiles that would threaten both Israel and Europe.

But Douglas Guilfoyle, an expert in international law and lecturer at University College London, said there were legal constraints on enforcing a blockade. For example, he said, one should not be "implemented or continued if the civilian population is going to suffer excessive damage in relation to the military advantage". Israel also faces charges of piracy as the raid took place in international waters, 120km out into the Mediterranean.

Another aid boat of Irish and Malaysian activists, the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie, which is carrying building supplies, is in the Mediterranean, and organisers say it will be several days before it arrives in Gaza.