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Aid ship sailing towards Gaza, prefers U.N. escort

DUBLIN (Reuters) - An aid ship expects to arrive in Gaza by Saturday morning if given clear passage by Israel, just days after another aid vessel was boarded by Israeli commandos who killed nine people, crew member Derek Graham told Reuters.

The MV Rachel Corrie, a converted merchant ship bought by pro-Palestinian activists and named after an American woman killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003, set off Monday from Malta.

He said all on board were determined to continue with the journey following Monday’s deadly raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish-backed aid convoy.

“We expect to be in Gaza late Friday night, early Saturday morning ... We’re on our way to Gaza,” Graham, who is Irish and an owner of the ship, told Reuters by telephone.

“Everybody was very upset at what happened. Everybody has been more determined than ever to continue on to Gaza.”

It is carrying 15 activists including a northern Irish Nobel Peace laureate and is 280 miles away from Gaza, north of Egypt, Graham said Thursday.

Israel has offered to escort the vessel and deliver the civilian aid for it and said Egypt was prepared to do the same.

But Graham said he was concerned not all cargo would be delivered. The ship has medical equipment, school supplies and cement, a material Israel has banned from entering Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would not allow its Gaza blockade to be breached. “No ship will reach Gaza. The Rachel Corrie will not reach Gaza,” he told Israel Radio.

Israeli forces approach a naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, May 31, 2010. REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool


Graham said, however, he would be open to an escort from the United Nations. “We’re willing to let the U.N. come and inspect the cargo. We will accept an escort from the U.N.,” he said.

When asked if any such offer had been made, he said: “Our communication is pretty limited but we would hope there would be people working on that as we speak.”

The Israeli navy stormed a Turkish ferry leading a six-ship convoy, killing nine people in what Israeli authorities have said was self-defense. The killings have sparked a world outcry and condemnations of Israel.

“Only if they board us, we will be showing that we are not aggressive people, we are sitting showing we have nothing in our hands and will tell them where exactly crew are,” Graham said.

When asked how confident he was feeling he said: “I would imagine somewhere around 50/50.”

Graham, a member of the Free Gaza Movement -- one of the organizers of the aid convoy -- said he had received support from the Irish government.

Dublin, which said the ship was registered in Cambodia, has said it was maintaining contact with the ship and that it should be allowed to finish its mission unimpeded.

“They are very supportive of the whole initiative and they are very supportive of us,” Graham said. “They are concerned because we are Irish citizens.”

Other have suggested it may take longer for the Rachel Corrie to arrive. Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement who is not on the ship, said earlier there could be a three or four day delay as the ship stops off to take some reporters on board.

However Graham said this seemed unlikely. “We’re continuing on,” he said.

Editing by Andras Gergely