Turkey Gives Returning Activists Hero's Welcome

ISTANBUL - Turkey welcomed back the activists from the flotilla to Gaza in the early hours of yesterday, giving them a heroes welcome as they disembarked, after hours of delays - from flights from Israel - at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Separately, three air ambulances carrying several wounded activists arrived in Ankara a few hours earlier.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and several other lawmakers were on hand, together with about 1,000 supporters, at 3 A.M. to greet the 450 tired-looking activists in Istanbul. Unfurling flags and flashing victory signs, many of the activists were then sent immediately to a nearby hospital for medical tests to determine if they had been poisoned by water given to them by the prison authorities in Israel - a claim being made by IHH, the controversial Turkish Islamic charity behind the voyage.

In a fiery speech, Arinc accused Israel of piracy and said his government saluted IHH, a charity Israel has accused of supporting terrorism. "They faced barbarism and oppression but returned with pride," Arinc told supporters outside the airport, who were chanting "God is Great!"

With the activists came nine bodies of those killed in the raid, several of whom were buried later in the day. More funerals are expected in the days to come. The Turkish media yesterday identified the dead as being eight Turkish nationals and a U.S. citizen of Turkish origin, all of whom are said to have died from gunshot wounds.

IHH head Bulent Yildirim, who had been on the flotilla, squarely blamed the Israelis for initiating the violence. He said that the activists did seize the soldiers' weapons, but threw them into the sea instead of using them.

Yardarm also said some more activists are missing, a charge echoed by many of those returning.

Those who participated in the flotilla continued to tell stories of Israeli mistreatment yesterday. Sarah Colbourne, campaign director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, returned to London on a morning flight after being released to Turkey. Welcomed at the airport by a small crowd of cheering supporters waving Palestinian flags, Colbourne recounted how the flotilla passengers were allegedly manhandled by the Israelis.

"When we tried to help our wounded we were stopped by the Israelis," she said, telling how the soldiers handcuffed the flotilla's medics. "There was a massacre there. It was like a horror movie. We were tied and forced to kneel in the hot sun before we were given any water or food," she continued.

One woman, said Colbourne, was pregnant and others were sick, "but there was no mercy. We always knew they massacred Palestinians but we did not think they would try that on civilians from 32 countries aged one year to 89."

"There was no empathy from any of the Israelis we encountered," she concluded. "We know there are Israelis who feel shame and we need to strengthen them so they can bring their government to task, but we did not feel any humanity from the Israelis we met."