Deaths in Israel raid provoke outrage

Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel and the U.N. Security Council called an emergency session Monday as condemnations erupted across the world over Israel's deadly raid on a flotilla of pro-Palestinians activists bound for the Gaza Strip.

Israel's military said nine people were killed in the raid about 40 miles off Israel's coast. Flotilla organizers put the death toll at 16. Dozens were wounded, including seven Israeli soldiers.

At the UN, Palestinians and Arabs, backed by a number of council members including Turkey, demanded condemnation and an independent investigation. They also called for Israel to lift its blockade on Gaza, release the ships and activists, and allow them to deliver their goods.

Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country had been a longtime Muslim ally of Israel, called the raid "banditry and piracy" on the high seas and "murder conducted by a state." Many of the activists aboard the ships were Turks.

Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco said the bloodshed would have been avoided "if repeated calls on Israel to end the counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza had been heeded."

U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the United States "is deeply disturbed by the recent violence and regrets the tragic loss of life," and will continue to urge Israel to expand the scope and type of goods allowed into Gaza to meet humanitarian needs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled a planned meeting with President Obama in Washington to rush home.

Speaking alongside the Canadian prime minister, Netanyahu expressed regret for the loss of life but said the soldiers "had to defend themselves, defend their lives, or they would have been killed."

Soldiers board

Israel insisted its soldiers were simply unprepared for what awaited them on the Mavi Marmara, the ship carrying 600 of the 700 activists. Instead of carrying their regular automatic rifles, the Israelis said they went in with non-lethal paintball guns and pistols they never expected to use.

But as the first soldiers boarded, they were quickly beset by protesters.

A soldier identified only as a sergeant told reporters at a military briefing that the activists on board "were armed with knives, scissors, pepper spray and guns.... I saw my friends on the deck spitting blood."

According to the military, two protesters grabbed handguns from two commandos and began firing.

At some point, military commanders authorized soldiers to use handguns against the crowds, military officials said.

"Soldiers acted appropriately in this situation," said the military's chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi. "Soldiers found themselves in a life-threatening situation and used their weapons."

The passengers included Edward Peck, 81, of Chevy Chase, Md., a former U.S. ambassador. His wife, Ann Peck, said late Monday that she had received an e-mail from Israel's foreign ministry informing her that her husband was fine and headed home.

Protest organizers insisted that activists were unarmed and that Israeli soldiers began shooting as soon as they boarded.

"They can spin it any way they want," said Greta Berlin, a leader of Free Gaza, one of the pro-Palestinian groups that organized the flotilla. "We're the civilians and they are the military. This was murder."

Passengers reached at an Israeli hospital and journalists aboard the ship accused the soldiers of using excessive force.

Protests erupt

As the news of the raid spread, protests erupted across the world.

In Istanbul, a crowd tried to storm the Israeli Consulate. North of Jerusalem, Palestinians hurled bottles and stones at Israeli soldiers. In Jordan, hundreds urged their government to follow Turkey's lead and cut ties with Israel. Dozens of Egyptians protested outside the foreign ministry in Cairo.

Riot police used tear gas to drive back hundreds of protesters demonstrating outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris. There were also demonstrations in Italy, Sweden, Norway, Cyprus, Canada and the U.S., and more than 20 cities in Greece.

In Washington, D.C., dozens of demonstrators protested outside the Israeli Embassy chanting "Shut down the embassy! Stop Israeli piracy!" The group later gathered in front of the White House.

The Israeli government had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade before the ships set sail from waters off Cyprus on Sunday and offered to take some aid in for them.

Israel has allowed ships through five times, but has blocked them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers in January 2009.