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Aid ships launch mission to defy Gaza blockade

world Updated: May 30, 2010 13:18 IST

A convoy of ships containing pro-Palestinian activists and aid destined for the blockaded Gaza Strip on Sunday steamed south from Cyprus towards Israeli naval vessels determined to stop them.

The five ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, are on the last leg of a high-profile mission to deliver tonnes of aid to Gaza, which has been subjected to a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.

"Five ships left Cypriot waters this morning at around 5:00 am (0200 GMT)," Audrey Bomse told AFP, adding that the fleet expected to reach Gaza territorial waters some time after 4:00 pm (1300 GMT).

In Gaza City, dozens of Palestinian fishing boats were preparing to set sail to meet the flotilla, which is carrying hundreds of civilians and a handful of European MPs as well as dozens of Muslim activists.

Bomse said two vessels which had been due to join the so-called "Freedom Flotilla" had not been able to set sail after sustaining damage over the weekend, in a move which the convoy's organisers claimed was "sabotage."

"Now we are thinking of sending a second wave of boats including these two and the Rachel Corrie, which is still en route" from Ireland, she said, adding that the second convoy would probably set off around Tuesday.

"We're going to see how the others get on -- either they will reach Gaza or Israel will stop them and there will be a confrontation," Bomse said.

The flotilla of cargo and passenger ships, which is carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid for Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip, had been due to reach Gaza on Saturday.

But its departure was delayed because of technical problems affecting two of the vessels.

Israel has slammed as "illegal" the convoy's attempt to break its blockade on Gaza, and has naval forces at the ready to intercept the ships and detain the pro-Palestinian activists on board.

Gaza has been subjected to a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007 after Hamas -- an Islamist movement committed to the destruction of Israel -- seized power in the impoverished and overcrowded Palestinian territory.

Pro-Palestinian activists have landed in Gaza five times, with another three unsuccessful attempts since their first such voyage in August 2008. The latest is their biggest operation.

To date, the amount of aid has been largely symbolic but organisers say this convoy is laden with 10,000 tonnes, ranging from pre-fabricated homes to pencils.