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Israel boat raid sparks condemnations, protests

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel and called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council as criticism and condemnations arose across Europe and the Arab world Monday over Israel's deadly commando raid on ships taking humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Turkey's prime minister said that Israel had violated international law and shown that it does not want peace in the region.

"It should be known that we are not going to remain silent in the face of this inhumane state terrorism," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The raid, in which at least nine pro-Palestinian activists, mostly Turks, were killed, was a new blow to Israel's international standing at a time when the West -- including the United States -- have grown frustrated with its stance in the peace process. The bloodshed particularly hurts its relations with Turkey, which was once a close regional ally of Israel but has become increasingly critical of it.

The flotilla of six ships, carrying some 700 activists, was sponsored in part by a Turkish organization.

A crowd of Turks tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul before some 10,000 marched to a main square. Around 1,000 protested in Jordan's capital, Amman, calling for their government to cut diplomatic ties with Israel. Smaller protests erupted in capitals across the Middle East, Europe and South Asia.

Palestinian youths protesting the raid scuffled with Israeli soldiers, throwing bottles and stones at them at a checkpoint north of Jerusalem.

Israel said the activists attacked its commandos as they boarded the six ships taking tons of supplies to Gaza, while the flotilla's organizers said the Israeli forces opened fire first.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence. The White House issued a cautious reaction, saying "The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained, and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy."

The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said the bloc was deeply concerned and she called on Israel to carry out an inquiry. British Foreign Secretary William Hague deplored the killings and called for an end to the Gaza blockade.

Greece suspended a military exercise with Israel and postponed a visit by Israel's air force chief. Greece, Egypt, Sweden, Spain and Denmark summoned Israel's ambassadors demanding explanations for the violence. Spain and France condemned what they called the disproportionate use of force. Germany called for an immediate investigation but was careful not to directly place blame, and said it was seeking information on six German citizens believed to have been aboard the ships.

In Tehran, dozens of angry students pelted the U.N. offices with stones and eggs in protest, burning Israeli flags and chanting, "death to Israel" and "down with U.S." Police blocked them from reaching the building. The president of Iran, a key supporter of Hamas, called the raid "an inhuman act."

Abdel-Rahman al-Attiya, the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional group, said "Israel is a renegade entity that violates international law" and said the attack should be considered "a war crime."

In Saudi Arabia, which has promoted a wider Arab-Israeli peace proposal calling for a land-for-peace swap, the Cabinet headed by King Abdullah called on the international community to hold Israel responsible for its "barbaric" policies.

But the strongest reaction came from Turkey, where Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Turkey was canceling three joint military drills and calling on the U.N. Security Council to convene in an emergency session about Israel. Turkey is currently a member of the council.

He also said a Turkish youth soccer team currently in Israel would be brought home.

The raid also brought heightened attention to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, imposed after the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized control of the tiny Mediterranean territory in 2007. The blockade -- along with Israel's fierce offensive against Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 to stop Hamas rocket fire on Israeli villages -- has fueled anti-Israeli sentiment around the Arab world.

The Cairo-based Arab League called an emergency session for Tuesday to address the attack, as the two only Arab states with peace deals with Israel -- Jordan and Egypt -- sharply condemned the violence.

The incident also put Egypt in a tight position. The only Arab country bordering the Gaza Strip, it has helped enforce the blockade by cracking down on smuggling tunnels that are a key source of goods to Gaza's 1.5 million people and by rejecting pressure that it open its border crossing.

A group founded by Nelson Mandela that includes Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter said "the treatment of the people of Gaza is one of the world's greatest human rights violations and that the blockade is not only illegal, it is counterproductive."

In Beirut, about 500 Palestinian and Lebanese activists protested in front of the U.N. headquarters, setting Israeli flags on fire. "In neighboring Syria, more than 200 Syrian and Palestinian protesters staged a sit-in before the offices of the United Nations.

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Keath reported from Cairo. AP correspondents from around the Mideast and Europe contributed to this report.