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Israeli navy boards activist ship to Gaza

ASHDOD, Israel (Reuters) - The Israeli navy boarded a boat carrying pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip on Tuesday in defiance of an Israeli blockade and took the vessel to a port in Israel.

A ferry (L) is escorted by Israel's navy (not pictured) as it enters into port in Ashdod June 30, 2009. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

“No shots were fired during the boarding of the boat,” the Israeli military said in a statement. A police source said the boat crew and the activists would likely be deported.

The small ferry had set off from Cyprus with activists from the U.S.-based Free Gaza movement and humanitarian aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, a territory ruled by Hamas Islamists.

The military said the vessel was intercepted in Gaza’s Israeli-controlled coastal waters. It was taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where it docked.

The Free Gaza movement said Irish Nobel peace prize laureate Mairead Maguire and former U.S. congresswoman Cynthia McKinney were aboard the vessel.

The Israeli navy has intercepted Free Gaza activists sailing into Gaza on two previous occasions.

“Yesterday evening the Israeli navy contacted the boat while at sea clarifying that it would not be permitted to enter Gaza coastal waters because of security risks in the area, and the existing naval blockade,” the military said.

“Disregarding all warnings given, the cargo boat entered Gazan coastal waters,” the statement said.

Greta Berlin, a Free Gaza representative in Cyprus, voiced outrage at what she termed Israel’s theft of the boat and kidnapping of its passengers.

Greece, whose flag the vessel is flying, demanded the Israeli authorities immediately release the boat, the crew and its passengers.

Israel tightened its Gaza blockade in 2007 after Hamas took control of the enclave, home to some 1.5 million people.

International calls for an end to the blockade mounted after a 22-day Israeli offensive last December and January deepened hardship in the territory. Israel launched the operation with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “Israel every day is allowing humanitarian support to reach the people of Gaza, food stuffs, medicines, energy and so forth.”

“This boat was not about that, this boat was about political activists who have been apologists for the Hamas regime.”