ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of activists from a Turkish-led aid flotilla landed at Istanbul early on Thursday, dazed and shaken after their ordeal but given a hero’s welcome by thousands of cheering supporters waiting at the airport.
Three Turkish planes that bore the activists from Tel Aviv to Turkey also carried the simple wooden coffins of the nine killed when Israeli commandos stormed the ships trying to take aid to Gaza.
“We’ve been scared, frightened, kidnapped and attacked with battleships while we were taking aid to needy people in Gaza,” said Mustafa Ahmet, a British citizen of Turkish origin.
The Israeli military said the deaths occurred when commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, the cruise ship on which most of the violence occurred, from helicopters and dinghies.
As activists descended from the planes at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport they lifted their arms in defiance, but afterwards some were overcome with emotion and wept.
The majority of the 466 people aboard the planes were Turkish with some British, Norwegian, Dutch and Spanish citizens among them.
Several activists suggested the death toll was higher than nine, and accused the Israeli army of hiding bodies and destroying forensic evidence.
“The soldiers shot a doctor who wanted to surrender and they threw dead bodies into the sea. We still don’t know what happened to them,” said Bulent Yildirim, chairman of the IHH, the Turkish Islamic charity which organized the convoy.
He said Israeli commandos had forced activists to kneel with their hands behind their backs after they stormed the flotilla, and helicopters circling overhead poured cold sea water onto them.
Kevin Ovenden of Britain said a man who had pointed a camera at the soldiers was shot directly through the forehead with live ammunition, with the exit wound blowing away the back of his skull.
Israel says its commandos were attacked as they came aboard the Mavi Marmara, forcing them to shoot in self-defense after activists clubbed and stabbed them and snatched their weapons.
Many of those waiting at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport carried Palestinian flags and bore slogans such as “murderer Israel,” while one group of protesters tore up an Israeli flag. Hours earlier thousands had demonstrated in a central Istanbul square.
The injured were flown separately to a military airport in Ankara aboard two air ambulances.
The killings of Turks onboard the flotilla has brought the already strained relationship between the Jewish state and Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government close to breaking point.
Turkey recalled its ambassador and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has called for Israel’s act to be “punished.”
Editing by Michael Roddy