Israel Releases Passengers of Impounded Gaza-bound Ship

Freighter detained after attempting to break Gaza blockade; IDF: No arms, found aboard seized ship.

Ten activists and journalists detained Thursday by the Israeli navy on a cargo ship carrying humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip have returned to Lebanon, security officials and activists said.

Israel, however, allowed blood donations that were on board the ship to enter Gaza on Friday, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The nine Lebanese and a Palestinian resident of Lebanon arrived early Friday, with the help of the UN peacekeeping force, across the Lebanese-Israeli border at the coastal town of Naqoura.

The 10 were among 18 activists and crew held for several hours after their ship was seized by the Israeli navy enforcing a blockade of the Palestinian territory.

All 18 people aboard were expelled to different destinations, apparently according to nationality.

Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed said one of the passengers, 86-year-old former Greek-Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem Hillarion Capucci, was taken to the Golan Heights where he crossed into Syria.

Three others were to be flown out to London early Friday, Israeli officials said.

The Israel Navy boarded the vessel after it tried to break the Gaza blockade and escorted it into the port of Ashdod, Israeli officials said.

The IDF said that troops found about 150 bottles of mineral water and a few dozen kilograms of food and medicine on board, despite earlier claims that it was carrying about 60 tons of medicine, food and toys, plus 10,000 units of human blood plasma which requires constant refrigeration.

The Tali, a cargo vessel flying the flag of the West African state of Togo, was sent by the Palestinian National Committee Against the Siege in cooperation with the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement.

No weapons were found aboard the ship, an IDF spokesman said.

It was the first apparent attempt by a foreign ship carrying aid to reach the Palestinian territory since Israel ended its 22-day offensive against Hamas in Gaza two weeks ago.

The army on Thursday said in a statement, "The actions of the boat crew raised suspicion, as it could threaten security concerns, or furthermore, the boat could be used for smuggling banned equipment [weaponry, etc.] in to or out of the Gaza Strip," the IDF said in a statement.

"As a result of the actions taken by the boat crew, an Israel Navy force intercepted, boarded, and took control of the cargo boat, directing it toward Ashdod," the army said.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television quoted a correspondent aboard the vessel as saying the Israel Navy had fired shots then boarded the Tali and beaten passengers and crew.

"They are opening fire towards the vessel...there are Israeli soldiers who have actually boarded the vessel," said correspondent Salam Khoder. "Three of them are pointing their weapons at us ... They are beating those on the vessel, they are beating and kicking us."

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the action.

"Those who commit massacres against innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza will not stop themselves from assaulting, in front of the world, a ship carrying humanitarian supplies," he said. "I express my utmost condemnation for this blatant attack."

An IDF spokesman said no gunfire was used in taking control of the vessel and most of the 20 passengers aboard were from media organizations. But he said warning shots were fired in the air when the ship tried to sail toward the Gaza Strip.

Israel maintains tight control of Gaza's access to the outside world, insisting it will not permit shipment of cash, steel or other materials that could be used by Hamas Islamists, who control the Strip, to make weapons.

There have been several attempts to break the blockade over the past months by sympathizers of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians. Some boats were allowed to dock, others were warned off.