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Published: Thursday, 7/7/2011

Greece stops Gaza-bound boat, immobilizes flotilla

Coastguard checking papers, no arrests

BY RENEE MALTEZOU
REUTERS
An unidentified volunteer tends to a protest ship Wednesday at the port of Perama, near Athens. An unidentified volunteer tends to a protest ship Wednesday at the port of Perama, near Athens.
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ATHENS — The Greek coastguard intercepted a small French boat with Pro-Palestinian activists aboard on Thursday, the third flotilla ship to be prevented from sailing to Gaza to challenge an Israeli blockade.

Greece, just over a year after nine people were killed when Israeli marines stormed a pro-Palestinian flotilla, imposed a ban on all Gaza-bound ships saying it feared for the safety of the activists who are now trying to find a way to set sail.

The boat with about 10 activists aboard, including French politicians, an MEP and a journalist, sailed from Corsica. Activists had said it was in international waters waiting to join the rest of the flotilla, now confined in Greek ports.

The “Dignity” was detected in the early morning near the southern Greek island of Crete as it was refuelling at sea and was towed to the port of Sitia for checks, the coastguard said.

“We are still checking their papers. We haven’t spotted any problem so far. They have not disclosed their destination, maybe because they have not decided yet,” said a coastguard official in Crete, on condition of anonymity.

There were no arrests, activists and the coastguard said.

The 10-ship flotilla, with about 350 passengers, was supposed to take drugs, food and building materials to Gaza by the end of June, but a priority was to challenge the blockade.

But the chances that they will reach their destination has faded due to the vigilance of the Greek coastguard which has intercepted three of their ships so far and is closely watching the other seven, moored in ports across Greece.

“We are still waiting. We know that the days are going by but we are waiting to see what will happen. So far, we can’t move,” said Dimitris Plionis, one of the activists.

On Friday, the Greek coastguard intercepted the U.S. ship “Audacity of Hope” just a short while after it set sail from Piraeus port, and arrested its captain. Three days later, armed coastguards boarded the Canadian ship “Tahrir” which set sail from Crete and escorted it back. Three people were detained.

Although all four detainees were freed, they face charges for defying the Greek ban, which can only be lifted if the Greek Citizen Protection Ministry issues a new order. Nine ships are being confined in Greek ports and all 10 are accounted for.

Israel says its blockade of Gaza is aimed at stopping weapons from reaching the enclave’s rulers, Hamas — an Islamist group that is branded a terrorist group by some Western nations.

In an effort to calm the activists, Greece offered to ferry the aid to Gaza in cooperation with the United Nations. The activists turned the offer down saying this was “insufficient” as their mission was also about the rights of the Palestinian people and not just about aid.

“It is an offer that is always on the table and is still on the table,” said Greek Foreign Minister Stavros Lambrinides on Thursday in Vienna.



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