BEIRUT (Reuters) - Activists on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship seized four Israeli marines before other commandos stormed aboard using live ammunition, a Lebanese cameraman said in an account Thursday that echoed elements of Israeli testimony.
There were sharp differences in the versions of Monday’s events at sea on the cruise liner Mavi Marmara. Witnesses freed after three days incommunicado in Israel accused troops of war crimes; Israel held to its line that they fired in self-defense.
But the account from Andre Abu Khalil, a cameraman for Al Jazeera TV, echoed other testimony, from both sides, that after an initial landing by a small group of commandos armed with anti-riot weapons was overpowered by activists wielding sticks, a second wave of marines stormed in, killing those in their way.
Israeli troops insist they killed 9 men only after being fired on by two activists who seized pistols from marines; many of those aboard the ship say they saw no activists shooting.
Abu Khalil told Reuters by telephone from the southern Lebanese village of Marjayoun: “There were four Israeli soldiers brought to the lowest deck. They had fracture wounds.”
The soldiers were apparently captured during attempts to descend to the ship from helicopters, Abu Khalil heard from activists who had been on the top deck of the Mavi Marmara.
Monday, an Israeli commando said he was struck with metal bars on the ship, while others in the boarding party were held down and stripped of their helmets and equipment.
Abu Khalil went on: “Twenty Turkish men formed a human shield to prevent the Israeli soldiers from scaling the ship. They had slingshots, water pipes and sticks.”
“They were banging the pipes on the side of the ship to warn the Israelis not to get closer.”
The standoff lasted about 10 minutes until the Israelis opened fire, he said: “One man got a direct hit to the head and another one was shot in the neck.”
Abu Khalil said he saw some 40 wounded people, some with bullet wounds to the legs, apparently to disable them. Others had wounds to the eye, stomach and chest.
One activist used a loudhailer to tell the Israelis the four captive soldiers were well and would be released if they provided medical help for the wounded.
With an Israeli Arab lawmaker acting as mediator, the Israelis agreed to the request and the wounded were brought to the top deck where they were airlifted off the ship.
Abu Khalil said: “I’m happy and angry at the same time ... The most we had was a kitchen knife and sling shots.”
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem