'It was as if we were in a war'

Several pro-Palestinian activists released from Israeli detention centres recount details of their ordeal aboard the Gaza flotilla's lead ship on Monday when Israeli commandos stormed it.

Mubarak al Mutawa, one of the 16 Kuwaiti activists on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza, reunites with loved ones in Kuwait.
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KUWAIT CITY // Several pro-Palestinian activists who were released from Israeli detention centres yesterday recounted details of their ordeal aboard the Gaza flotilla's lead ship on Monday when Israeli commandos stormed it. A Kuwaiti on board the ship said Turkish passengers had captured three Israeli soldiers as the ship was attacked. The passengers who had captured the men "called them Shalit One, Shalit Two and Shalit Three", after the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, said Salah al Ahmed, 45.

Mr al Ahmed, along with his wife, Sanan, was one of 16 Kuwaitis who were greeted yesterday by politicians and 300 supporters after flying home from Jordan on a jet of the emir's fleet. The crowd chanted "Allah Akbar", threw petals over the activists and placed chains of flowers around their necks. As they disembarked in the airport's Emiri terminal, the passengers looked ragged. Mr al Ahmed said the Israelis were captured by Turkish passengers on the top deck of the ship after they had descended from helicopters. He said the captives were held in a lower deck and handed over at the end of the attack.

The Israelis "were shooting the Turks in the head because they were trying to catch many of them", Mr al Ahmed claimed. The Kuwaiti group included the Islamist parliamentarian, Waleed al Tabtabae, and five women. Many of them had gathered on the lower, outer deck of the Mavi Marmara, before the Israelis began their attack. "They attacked ? at 4am; we were praying and they started attacking. At 5am they had control of the whole ship," said Wael al Abduljader, 47. "In the beginning, they were firing rubber bullets, then live bullets."

He said the people on board fought the Israelis with wooden sticks "because they were trying to defend themselves", but did not use knives or guns, which Israel had claimed. Mr al Abduljader's daughter, Sundus, 22, who was also on the boat, said that after the Israelis landed and started shooting, passengers "started searching for anything they could find - even garbage cans - for self-defence". The activists were held in a lower chamber of the boat with the dead bodies then held under the sun on the upper deck for five hours, she said. The bus that took them to Jordan was greeted by the Kuwaiti ambassador who "brought us mobile and pin cards because we could not talk to anyone".

Ms al al Abduljader said the Israelis confiscated all of the passengers' belongings except money and passports. The Kuwaitis were among about 125 citizens of Muslim countries released yesterday and who crossed into Jordan from Israel via the Allenby Bridge. Sabah Gheghissi, 38, a consultant at the Algerian ministry of trade, remembered being on the deck of the ship "when we saw two huge war ships approaching us. The captain told us that they were asking about the ship's identity.

"We were in the international waters. He told us to remain calm. We were not expecting attacks; not least when we were [so] close to Gaza. But as the ships became closer, we thought it was meant to intimidate us. The ship crew distributed life jackets because we thought that that they would drown us. The men on board stood side by side forming a human barrier trying to prevent the soldiers from getting into the ship.

"Then we felt the danger. It wasn't normal, it was as if we were in a war. "We heard running at first [when the commandos landed], then there was shooting, blood and people were injured. I have blood stains on one of my shawls. I took one of the martyr's prayer caps that had blood stains on it but then an Israeli [female] soldier twisted my arm, pushed me and forcibly took the cap from me, but I pushed her and snatched it back.

"Next time, I will return to Gaza on a military ship and not on a peace ship." Another Algerian aboard the ship said that once captured they had been denied food and water or even to go to the toilet. Allali al Arabi, an Aljerian MP, said: "They asked us to sign a paper that we are illegal immigrants, which according to their 1952 [law] means that they can deport us forcibly. I refused and told them that I didn't enter Israel, but I was kidnapped in the international waters. We will return again to Gaza again. What happened will not stop us."

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