Suddenly, sound bombs and tear gas exploded

THE Israeli attack was timed for dawn prayers - when a large number of the men aboard the Mavi Marmara were praying on the aft deck of the Turkish passenger ferry, as she motored steadily through international waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The call to prayer could be heard across the water - chords made tinny by the ship's PA system, yet haunting enough amid tension sparked several hours earlier, when the six ships' captains in the Free Gaza Flotilla rejected a demand radioed by the Israeli Navy: change course away from the Gaza Strip or be confronted with lethal force.

Pacing the Mavi Marmara at a steady eight knots and just 150 metres to its port side, photographer Kate Geraghty and I were aboard the 25-metre Challenger I, the fastest but also the smallest boat in the flotilla.

It was a front-row seat for the opening to Israel's Operation Sky Wind, which, despite confident predictions by Israeli officials, was about to go horribly wrong.

In the blackness before the rising of a burnt-orange moon, all that could be seen of the Israelis around us were pin-points of light, as warships sitting a kilometre or more either side of the flotilla inched in - seemingly to squeeze the Gaza-bound humanitarian convoy.

Then, the tightening noose. Sneaking up and around every boat, there were bullet-shaped hulks that soon became impossible to hide as the moonlight made fluorescent tubes of their roiling wakes. First one, then two and maybe four could be seen sneaking in from the rear.

They hunted like hyenas - moving up and ahead on the flanks; pushing in, then peeling away; and finally, lagging before lunging. But as they came alongside the Mavi Marmara, the dozen or so helmeted commandos in each assault craft copped the full force of the ferry's fire hoses and a shower of whatever its passengers found on deck or could break from the ship's fittings.

Suddenly, sound bombs and tear-gas were exploding on the main aft-deck, where prayers were held five times a day. The lifejacketed passengers on the rails at first seemed oblivious as those behind them donned the few gas masks that were on board and others, wearing asbestos gloves, sought to grab the devices and hurl them back at the Israeli commandos - before they exploded.

In failing to get their grappling irons to hold on the rails of the five-deck ferry, the commandos in their assault craft continued to be an irritant, or perhaps a decoy because at this point the Israelis opted for a critical change of plan - if they could not come up from the water, then they would have to drop from the sky.

The death toll stands at nine of the ship's activists with maybe 30 injured. There were claims from some on the ship that some of their comrades were missing, unaccounted for since the battle at sea and the chaotic arrest and deportation by Israel of the estimated 700 activists on board the six vessels.

Four of the ships carried 10,000 tonnes of emergency supplies for Gaza, which Israel has kept under blockade since 2006 when Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the European Union, won electoral control of the Palestinian Occupied Territories - and a year later, retained control of Gaza in the face of an Israeli and US-backed bid by forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the secular Fatah movement, to oust the Islamist movement from power in Gaza.

But the flotilla's international coalition of Palestinian support groups - drawing funds from non-government organisations in Turkey, Malaysia, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Sweden - is also determined to prove the Israeli blockade of Gaza as a western-backed exercise in collective punishment that will be maintained till Gazans turn on Hamas and not, as Tel Aviv claims, a policy that is vital to Israel's security.

As distress flares launched from the ship cut through the steel-beam spotlights on Israeli helicopters hovering overhead, the first Israeli commandos who slithered down ropes from the choppers were easy pickings for activists who rushed the upper decks on hearing the machines moving into place.

At this stage, Challenger I's British skipper, Dennis Healey, opted to gun the ship's engines, hoping to break away from the Israelis swarming the rest of the flotilla.

The following account of what happened on the decks of the Mavi Marmara is based on interviews with activists while they and the Fairfax news crew, which accompanied the flotilla as non-participating observers, were held in an Israeli prison for more than two days and, on Wednesday, on board one of three aircraft sent to Israel by the Turkish government to ferry all the near-700 captured activists to a rousing 4am reception by tens of thousands of cheering Turks at Istanbul's airport.

On hearing the helicopters, activists on the upper decks rushed to the top level of the ship - grabbing the commandos even before they landed, disarming them; beating them till, according to some who were present, their leaders demanded that the Israeli's not be harmed; but in one case, one of the Israelis was hurled from one deck to the ship to the next.

There were conflicting accounts of the first commando's landing - some activists said he was injured and was being carried inside the ship for treatment by the flotilla doctors. However, a Serbian cameraman, Srojan Stojiljkovic, said that some of the activists had armed themselves with lengths of chain and metal posts.

''Some of the people caught the first commando before he touched the deck - a few started to hit him, but a lot of people moved in to shelter him with their bodies,'' the cameraman said. ''Another soldier with a bleeding nose was brought in … a few people threw punches, but not as many as I would have expected.''

Matthias Gardel, a leader of the Swedish Palestinian support group, confirmed that the soldiers had been beaten, but insisted that those involved were unarmed and that in keeping with the ship's non-violent charter, the soldiers' weapons were thrown overboard.

Soon after the soldiers had been treated, the injured and dead from among the ship's passengers were brought in.

Mr Stojiljkovic said: ''Some were not badly wounded, but then a guy was brought in with a point-blank shot between his eyes - he was dead and I was told that another person was killed in the same way.''

The Turkish actor Sinan Albayrak said he had witnessed one of the most senior of the Turkish activists ordering passengers to cease beating two of the Israeli soldiers. Later, he saw a Turkish photographer who had been shot in the back of the head; and while he and others had been attempting to assist another injured activist, Israeli troops had opened fire on them.

Mr Gardel said that the bulk of the passengers had remained in the second deck saloons and had not been involved in resisting the Israelis. ''But a bunch of people tried to protect the bridge, the engine-room and the point from which we streamed the live video,'' he said.

Another activist, a Turk, lifted his shirt to reveal 10 puncture marks in a rough and black-bruised circle, about the circumferences of a tea cup, which he said had been inflicted when he was bitten by an Israeli security dog while assisting the Israelis as a translator.

The dead are believed to include Turkish journalist Chetin Genghis, whose head wounds suggested he had been shot from above - possibly from one of the Israeli helicopters.

Another of the dead was said to be an Indonesian cameraman, Sura Fachrizaz, who was shot in the chest. Also among the dead was a Malaysian doctor who, activists said, was shot while treating the wounded.

The Mavi Marmara was captured by the Israelis in about one hour and 25 minutes.

As the 100-plus reporters and other media workers on board followed orders to return to the ship's press room, after being told by the captain that his vessel was now under Israeli control and that all resistance was to cease, many were crestfallen by a sense that an Israeli blanket of ''white noise'' had prevented them from getting the story out.

But then one of their number flicked the switch on a large flat-screen TV on the wall. It burst into life with a Turkish channel, running the live-feed video that the ship had been transmitting to websites run by the Free Gaza Movement and the flotilla's other sponsors - it was scenes of the Israeli takeover of the Mavi Marmara. A resounding cheer went up.

¦ McGeough and Geraghty were yesterday deported to Turkey after being detained in Israel for three days.

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