ATHENS, Greece (The Blaze/AP) — Greece on Friday banned ships heading to the Gaza Strip from leaving Greek ports, and a vessel carrying several dozen American protesters which left port without permission was ordered to return.
A flotilla of nine Greek and foreign-flagged vessels and several hundred activists have said they want to break Israel’s sea blockade and deliver aid to the Palestinian territory.
Greece’s Civil Protection Ministry said coast guard authorities had been ordered to take “all appropriate measures” to implement the ban. It also said the “broader maritime area of the eastern Mediterranean will be continuously monitored by electronic means for tracking, where applicable, the movements of the ships allegedly participating” in the flotilla.
Protest organizers said one of the boats, dubbed the Audacity of Hope and carrying several dozen Americans, had left the port of Perama near Athens Friday afternoon, but had been intercepted by coast guards on inflatable speedboats about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) out at sea.
“We’re not moving because they put one of the (boats) in front of us, so we are stationary,” vessel spokesperson Jane Hirschmann told reporters in Athens.
The Merchant Marine Ministry refused to give any details of the incident, saying only that the protest boat had not left the “general port area.”
Two journalists embedded on the boats, however, do offer some detail. According to Phil Black, who says he’s a CNN correspondent, the boat that left port is returning after officials allegedly threatened to board the ship:
Joseph Dana, a correspondent with the liberal magazine “The Nation,” has been live tweeting the entire event. According to him, the boat is being escorted to a Coast Guard port complete with “barbed wire:”
According to him, both CNN and CBS captured the incident on video.
The New York Times offers more details regarding the moment the American ship was stopped:
After chasing them down, a smiling, youthful coast guard captain leaned out his window and requested the ship’s inspection papers. Passengers leaned over the upper-deck railing of the American boat, chanting, “Let us sail to Gaza!” Others held a cardboard sign asking, “Is it Poseidon or Netanyahu?” (That is, a passenger explained, “Who is the king of the Aegean?”)
Head protest organizer Vangelis Pissias angrily condemned the ban and argued Greece had no legal grounds to block a privately leased ship from leaving one of its ports.
“We condemn the policy of the Greek government and its last actions … The efforts to sail will continue,” Pissias said.
A Greek government official said the boat had set sail without the permission required of all boats to leave port, and that the Coast Guard had asked it to return. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation was still evolving.
Israel has said it will thwart any effort to breach the sea blockade of Gaza, which was imposed on the Palestinian territory after Hamas militants overran it in 2007.
An Israeli raid on a similar flotilla last year killed nine activists on a Turkish ship and each side blamed the other for the violence.
On Thursday, an Irish ship, the MV Saoirse at the Turkish coastal town of Gocek, said it had to abandon plans to set sail because of what it called Israeli sabotage. Earlier this week, activists said Israeli agents damaged the propeller of a Swedish ship in the Greek port. Israel has refused AP requests for comment on the allegations.
Elena Becatoros in Athens and Darko Bandic in Perama contributed.