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New aid ship nears Gaza coast, as Israeli Navy trails closely behind

Update | 6:23 p.m. The Israeli Defense Forces have released this video of the Rachel Corrie docking at the port of Ashdod and its 19 passengers, including Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, disembarking safely. The IDF said that the ship “had been boarded by the IDF forces and with full compliance of the crew,” and that the passengers would be transferred to the custody of the Israeli Interior Ministry.

Update | 1:55 p.m. Sufi Yusoff of the Perdana Global Peace Organization, a Malaysian group that helped fund the Rachel Corrie, confirmed to Need to Know that the ship was “forcibly stopped” 25 miles off the coast of Gaza, “seized and towed to Ashdod by force.” There was no resistance and none of the passengers, six of whom were Malaysian citizens, were injured. The Malaysian foreign minister, Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, issued a statement Saturday morning calling on Israel to “ensure the safety of all the humanitarian activists onboard.”

Update | 3:09 a.m. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces told Haaretz that the ship had ignored calls to dock at the port of Ashdod, and that the IDF was preparing for the “possibility of a takeover similar to that attempted earlier this week on the ‘Freedom Flotilla.'”

Update | 2:42 a.m. According to Twitter updates from both the Free Gaza movement and Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Israeli Navy has “stopped” the ship in international waters.

Original Post | There were conflicting reports early Saturday morning regarding the status of the Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian aid ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza after a deadly raid on the first flotilla left nine activists dead.

Sufi Yusoff of the Perdana Global Peace Organization, a Malaysian non-profit that helped organize the ship, told Need to Know that he had spoken with the passengers aboard the Rachel Corrie at about 11 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, but had not been able to contact them since. Yusoff said the passengers had observed three Israeli ships trailing them closely, but that there had been no communication between the Israeli Navy and the activists.

The passengers “did not have coordinates, but said they were about 55 miles from the port of Gaza. They also said three vessels which appeared to be naval patrol vessels, that [they] suspect were that of the Israeli Navy, had been flanking them for the past three hours before that,” Yusoff said. “The boats were estimated to be between six and 10 miles from where they were, but visible to those on board the Rachel Corrie. But there had been no contact then between them and the ships.”

Yusoff added: “I have been trying to reach them again since [early afternoon], but no one is picking up, although the satellite phone is ringing.”

Earlier there had been apparently false reports that Israeli commandos had boarded the Rachel Corrie and detained its passengers. The Free Gaza movement, which also helped organize the vessel, posted a statement on its website at 3:30 a.m. Cyprus time saying the Rachel Corrie had been boarded and that its satellite phones had been jammed, citing Israeli radio and Malaysian press reports.

About two hours later, the organization retracted that statement in a post on Twitter: “Report from the ship’s passengers. They have NOT been boarded. Followed by Israeli warships only.” In another post an hour later, the group wrote: “On the phone with passengers. 25 miles from Gaza. They have NOT been boarded but are followed by two war ships.”

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign also wrote on Twitter about an hour later that the Rachel Corrie was being trailed closely by Israeli warships, and cited unconfirmed reports that the ship could “be seen from Gaza shores.” The Free Gaza movement had said earlier that the ship was 25 kilometers from Gaza waters.

Both the IPSC and the Free Gaza movement also cited Al Jazeera as reporting that the Navy had insisted the ship sail to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the supplies would be unloaded, inspected and transported to Gaza. According to Free Gaza, the activists refused: “Al Jazeera reports that the Navy is insisting they go to Ashdod. Passengers say ‘no’. Navy says they will drag boat to Ashdod. Not possible.”

The agreement to allow the Rachel Corrie, an Irish ship, to sail to Ashdod and unload its supplies without fear of penalty or arrest was originally announced after negotiations with Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin, according to The Irish Times. The White House also appeared to support the deal. But the activists aboard the Rachel Corrie rejected the offer, saying their goal was to break the Israeli blockade.

Earlier on Saturday the PGPO had posted a statement on its website announcing that it would allow international inspectors to certify that the ship was not carrying weapons and that the passengers were not armed.

“In light of concerns by certain quarters, i.e. the Israeli authorities, the activists have therefore unanimously agreed to allow for the inspection of the cargo on board the MV Rachel Corrie,” the statement said. “They request and invite for an independent international body, preferably inspectors from the United Nations, to board the ship and do the necessary to certify as to the nature of the cargo on board.”

The deal was apparently rejected by Israel, according to the IPSC.

The Malaysia Star reported at about 11 a.m. local time that the ship had six Malaysians on board, including a journalist and member of parliament, as well as 13 other passengers. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the ship was continuing toward Gaza with three Israeli ships trailing closely, and that if boarded, the passengers had promised not to engage in violent resistance.