ANKARA (AFP) – Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Sunday to hold Israel to account over its “state terror” in the Middle East as thousands protested against the deadly raid on Gaza-bound aid ships.
The Israeli operation, in which nine Turks were killed, has plunged the fragile ties between the onetime strong allies into a deep crisis, with Erdogan hardening his strong criticism of the Jewish state.
Gaza “is a historical cause for us,” Erdogan said in a public speech in the northwestern city of Bursa, parts of which were carried by the CNN-Turk news channel.
“We object to those who force the people of Gaza to live in an open-air prison… We will stand firm until the blockade on Gaza is lifted, the massacres cease and the state terror in the Middle East is accounted for,” he added.
Israel has cut Gaza off from all but vital humanitarian aid in a bid to pressure the enclave’s rulers — the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas — to end rocket attacks on the south of the Jewish state.
Turkey recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv and cancelled joint military exercises after last week’s raid, while demanding a formal apology from Israel.
Israel will be absent from the participants of international aerial exercises that the Turkish army said Sunday would take place in central Turkey on June 7-18 with planes from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Spain and NATO taking part.
Ankara has also called for an independent international inquiry into the incident, which Erdogan said he discussed plans with UN chief Ban Ki-moon in a telephone conversation on Saturday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also spoke out Sunday about the need for “a credible and impartial inquiry”.
He said he spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and asked him to accept such an investigation, in which France would be willing to take part.
But Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told “Fox News Sunday” programme that his country had “the ability and the right to investigate itself”, and would not participate in any international probe.
In Ankara, some 6,000 to 7,000 people gathered under pouring rain, shouting “Damn Israel! Murderer Israel, get out of the Middle East!”, an AFP photographer said.
Some protestors set fire to a picture of Netanyahu as others held up a banner depicting him as a a pirate with a hook arm next to the inscription: “The Flotilla of Humanity Against Pirates”.
In Istanbul, some 1,000 people called on the government to expel Israeli diplomats.
Moroccan police said 35,000 people, including government ministers, held a protest in the capital Rabat where they trampled on Israeli flags.
In Lebanon, several hundred left-wingers burned Israeli flags at a demonstration near the US embassy while some 3,500 people, many wearing Palestinian headscarves, demonstrated in the northern French city of Lille.
Organisers of the aid flotilla have accused Israeli soldiers of firing indiscriminately in the raid on the Turkish ferry, Mavi Marmara, where the nine victims were killed. But they have also acknowledged that the activists attacked Israeli soldiers with metal bars.
Israeli officials say the soldiers responded only after they were attacked by the activists.
The mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper on Sunday published photos of bloodied Israeli commandos being overpowered by those on board the ferry, which it said were recovered from a memory card obtained from an activist.
One of the photos shows an Israeli soldier holding the back of his head with one hand, with blood on his face and the front of his shirt torn open.
Given the tense atmosphere, Israel late Sunday ordered that Israeli soldiers should not take part in military missions to Turkey or even go to the country for private reasons, the premier’s anti-terrorism office said.
Media reports have said that Turkey’s justice ministry was mulling possible legal action against Israel while prosecutors in Istanbul have launched an investigation to build a possible case over the raid against Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.