Israel sends gunships to block Gaza-bound flotilla

HAIFA, Israel — Israeli gunships headed out to sea Friday to stop a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists from reaching the Gaza Strip, the military said, setting the stage for what could become a showdown on the high seas.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said the country was prepared to stop the flotilla "at any cost." He called the aid mission a provocation and urged the international community to show understanding for the tough response.

"We really have all determination and political will to prevent this provocation against us," he said. "I think that we're ready at any cost... to prevent this provocation."

Military officials said an initial group of gunships went out to sea Friday to prepare for the flotilla's arrival. But plans to dispatch additional gunships were put on hold late Friday after reports that the flotilla had encountered mechanical problems, military officials said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said the gunships would remain in port until the flotilla got closer.

The military says it will intercept the ships, escort the vessels to shore and give the activists the choice of deportation or going to jail. Israel says that after a security check, it will transfer the cargo to Gaza through the United Nations.

Officials say they hope the situation will be resolved peacefully, but they are prepared to use force if necessary. Masked naval commandos have been trained for the mission, and Israel has built a large makeshift detention center in a southern port to process the activists.

The activists, among them a Nobel peace laureate, are trying to draw attention to a 3-year-old Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip — imposed after Hamas militants violently seized control of the territory. They say they are carrying tons of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Greta Berlin, one of the organizers of the effort, said seven ships were headed to Gaza, after an eighth vessel suffered a malfunction and had to turn back.

The organizers' website said the flotilla remained off the southern coast of Cyprus, some 250 miles northwest of Gaza, Friday evening. Berlin said the flotilla would halt under darkness, and resume the journey early today.