Human Rights Council AP May 21, 2010.
A session of the Human Rights Council at the UN European headquarters in Geneva. Photo by AP
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Investigators from the United Nations Human Rights Council have begun questioning witnesses on Israel's May 31 raid aboard a Gaza-bound boat, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists, the UN said on Monday.

An official statement said the 3-person investigative team was now in Turkey, under whose flag the vessel was registered, after hearing other witnesses in London and Geneva. The panel plans to continue its investigation in Amman, Jordan.

The team - judges from Britain and Trinidad and a Malaysian human rights campaigner - has been refused entry by Israel which says the pro-Palestinian activists aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara were killed when they attacked Israeli navy commandos with clubs and knives. 

The trio are due to present their report to the 47-nation council on September 27, according to a schedule for the body's 3-week autumn session which starts on September 13.

The council, where members of the 57-country Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and its developing country allies as well as Russia, Cuba and China have an inbuilt majority, set up the probe in June, despite strong Western reservations.

The council's decision on the investigation, on a resolution tabled by Pakistan for the OIC, was taken despite the announcement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he was setting up a separate, international probe into the same incident.

Diplomats said Ban was unhappy at the council move, which fit a pattern of overt and indirect challenges from the majority in the body to the authority of the UN chief and of High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

Israel itself is conducting its own investigations behind closed doors. Last week its defence forces chief told the Isareli panel, headed by retired justice Jacob Turkel, that the commandos, who rapelled onto the boat from helicopters, were not prepared for the violent resistance they met.

A former Foreign Ministry official had said last month that "the Israeli probe, conducted with transparency, makes the organization's probe completely unnecessary."

The boat was part of a flotilla whose organizers said it was taking aid supplies to Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza, which is under blockade by both Israel and Egypt. OIC-member Egypt itself backed the establishment of the council probe.

Israel had warned it would not let the flotilla through, arguing that it could be carrying materiel likely to help Hamas militants whom it accuses of threatening Israeli security. But it has since eased its Gaza blockade.

The incident sparked a serious deterioration of already strained relations between Israel and Turkey after many years of a close relationship which included military cooperation.

Earlier this month, current rights council president and Thai ambassador Sihasak Phuanketkeow said the team - whose members he chose - would not overlap with Ban's probe but rather complement it.