ISTANBUL (Reuters) - An Israeli warship threatened to sink Captain Huseyin Tokalak’s ship before young commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged Gazze and trained their guns on him and his crew.
“They pointed two guns to the head of each of us,” Tokalak told a news conference on Tuesday. “They were really interesting guns, like the ones you see in the movies.”
It was the only light moment in the grizzled Turkish sea captain’s account of how an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip ended in bloodshed.
There were no casualties on Tokalak’s vessel, but nine activists were killed when the Israeli commandos met resistance as they boarded the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a six-strong convoy organised by a Turkish Islamic charity -- the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).
Tokalak, who was released from Israeli custody and returned to Istanbul with his crew, said the Gazze, a cargo vessel carrying the bulk of the aid, was close behind the Mavi Marmara, a passenger ship with nearly 600 people on board.
They were 68 miles outside Israeli territorial waters, Tokalak told the news conference organised by the IHH.
He saw lights in the sea and air and helicopters approaching the convoy. Fast dinghies sped towards them and the helicopters hovered over the manoeuvring ships.
Using a tannoy, Tokalak told the approaching craft that his ship was in international waters and carried nothing illegal. He said the other captains did the same.
The Israelis threatened to open fire and sink them, he said.
The Israelis have said their soldiers opened fire only when they boarded the Mavi Marmara and came under attack from pro-Palestinian activists, but Tokalak saw events differently.
“They started shooting directly at Mavi Marmara. They didn’t care if it was the front or back of the ship,” he said.
Tokalak saw smoke rising from the ship and the helicopters descending. “I thought they would sink the ship.”
“The captain of Mavi Marmara said he was wounded and there were others on his ship who were also wounded. He sounded panicked and we got panicked too.”
Tokalak said he thought he saw people abandoning the ship, and two life jackets were seen in the dark waters. “But then we switched on our lights and saw that no one was in them.”
Communications with the Mavi Marmara seemed to be jammed, but finally its captain made contact, saying the commandos had broken windows and thrown gas bombs.
IHH Chairman Bulent Yildirim, on the Mavi Marmara, told the other ships to move off and wait. “We are in big trouble, we have wounded and dead people,” Tokalak quoted him as saying.
Israeli warships approached the five ships, warning that they would come under fire unless they heaved to.
“We had to stop to avoid more deaths,” Tokalak said.
It was the last order he gave before the Israeli boarding party took control and he became a prisoner on his own ship.
Editing by Tim Pearce