Thousands protest flotilla deaths, clashes in Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Europe and the Middle East Monday, clashing with police as they protested against the Israeli storming of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla during which 10 activists were killed.

In Athens, some 3,500 protesters rallied outside the Israeli embassy, chanting “Hands off Gaza” and “Free Palestine.” Several hundreds clashed with police, throwing chunks of marble, stones and bottles. Police fired teargas to disperse them.

“Demonstrators set barricades on fire, police chased them, there were a lot of stones and teargas and a few people had blood on their heads,” a Reuters witness said, adding he saw four people injured. Police said they detained five protesters.

The Israeli marines’ action in the eastern Mediterranean sparked street protests and government ire in Turkey, long Israel’s lone Muslim ally in the region, and thousands of followers of an anti-U.S. cleric took to the streets in Baghdad.

Across Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, up to 8,000 Egyptians protested to demand the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Cairo and called on the government to open its Rafah borders with Gaza.

The protests were organised by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition group which is affiliated to Hamas, the Islamist group that took control of the Gaza strip in 2007. Two Brotherhood parliamentarians were on board the convoy ships.

“Hamas you are the canon and the Brotherhood is your voice,” chanted thousands of Egyptians protesting in Cairo. The Brotherhood routinely organizes protests demanding the lifting of the Israeli blockade on Gaza.

Police used teargas in Paris when about 2,000 people demonstrated near the Israeli embassy, hurling stones, waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and brandishing banners saying “Long live free Palestine” and “Criminal Israel.”

Small, peaceful anti-Israel demonstrations were held in Rome and other Italian cities. “The Italian government needs to immediately call back its ambassador from Israel as other countries in Europe have done,” said Paolo Cento, a leftwing politician among the demonstrators.

“This is extremely serious and has no precedent whatsoever in the history of international diplomacy.”

Swedish police said more than 5,000 protesters marched from a central Stockholm square toward the Israeli embassy, carrying banners and shouting slogans.

Chanting “Boycott Israel,” they held banners saying “Free Gaza,” “Put Israel on Trial, “Israel to The Hague” and “Gaza Bleeds.”

Reporting by Yannis Behrakis, Yiorgos Karahalis and Renee Maltezou in Athens, Cristiano Corvino in Rome, Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Marwa Awad and Dina Zayed in Cairo, writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Tim Pearce