Elshayyal said that he witnessed some of the killings, and confirmed that at least "one person was shot through the top of the head from [the helicopter] above".


Our producer was on the top deck when the ship was attacked and said that within a few minutes of seeing the Israeli helicopters, there were shots being fired from above.

"The first shots [coming from Israeli boats at sea] were tear gas, sounds grenades and rubber coated steel bullets," Elshayyal said.

"Live shots came five minutes after that. There was definetly live fire from the air and from the sea as well."

He confirmed that some passengers took apart some of the ship's railing bars to defend themselves as they saw the Israeli soldiers approaching.

"After the shooting and the first deaths, people put up white flags and signs in English and Hebrew," he said.

"An Israeli [on the ship] asked the soldiers to take away the injured, but they did not, and the injured died on the ship."

Heroes welcome

Earlier three air ambulances landed at a military base in Ankara, the Turkish capital, carrying wounded activists who were transferred to hospitals in the city.

Activists killed

  Turkish victims
  Ibrahim Bilgen
  Ali Haydar Bengi
  Cevdet Kiliçlar
  Çetin Topçuoglu
  Necdet Yildirim
  Fahri Yaldiz
  Cengiz Songür
  Cengiz Akyüz
  US victim
  Furkan Dogan

Hundreds of supporters including Bulent Arinc, Turkey's deputy prime minister, and several other Turkish politicians were at the airport in Istanbul to welcome the returning activists.

"They faced barbarism and oppression but returned with pride," Arinc told hundreds of jubilant relatives and supporters outside the airport, chanting "God is Great!"

A crowd of several thousand gathered in central Istanbul to celebrate the activists' return.

An aircraft carrying 31 Greek activists, together with three French nationals and an American, flew into Athens airport in the early hours of Thursday, the Israeli foreign ministry said.

Seven activists wounded in Monday's clashes were still being treated in an Israeli hospital, it said.

Three others - an Irishman and two women from Australia and Italy - remained in Israel "for technical reasons", the ministry said.

But Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Jerusalem, said that four Palestinian-Israelis remain in prison.

Our correspondent said that Raed Salah,a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, was one of those still being held.

Israel defiant

Israel has remained defiant about the raid and says it is ready to intercept another aid ship, the Rachel Corrie, that organisers of the Freedom Flotilla say is due to head for the Gaza Strip next week.



  Blog: Israel defending the indefensible
  Twitter: Sherine Tadros
  Pictures: Protests around the world
  Previous activists killed by Israel
  Focus: On board the Freedom Flotilla
  Focus: Gaza's real humanitarian crisis
  Video: Israel's Gaza PR offensive
  Programmes: Born in Gaza

Accusing international critics of "hypocrisy," Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, defended the seizure of the aid ships on Wednesday.

"This was not the Love Boat," he said in a televised address to the nation, referring to the vessel boarded by commandos. "It was a hate boat."

"These weren't pacifists, these weren't peace activists, they were violent supporters of terrorism."

Netanyahu said the aim of the flotilla was to break the blockade of Gaza, not to bring aid.

He said that if the blockade ended, ships would bring in thousands of missiles from Iran to be aimed at Israel and beyond, creating what he said would be an Iranian port on the Mediterranean.

"The same countries that are criticising us today should know that they would be targeted tomorrow," Netanyahu said.

However, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said the flotilla tragedy only highlights the serious underlying problem - namely, the siege imposed on the Gaza.

He said that the siege was "counter-productive, unsustainable and wrong".

"It punishes innocent civilians," he said.

Ban said the siege should be lifted immediately.

No mention of inquiry

Netanyahu's comments came hours after Turkey warned it would cut off diplomatic ties with Israel if its citizens killed and injured in the Gaza flotilla raid were not returned by Wednesday night.

Mohyeldin said the Israeli prime minister's address did not include mention of an inquiry into the attack, as many have demanded.

"If the international community, or the Turkish government, were waiting to hear Binyamin Netanyahu announce an independent investigation to look into this deadly raid, it certainly did not come as expected, or as the international community and the UN Security Council had demanded," Mohyeldin said.

Thousands of protesters welcomed the activists' return to Turkey [Reuters]

"Instead the Israeli prime minister once again defended the Israeli course of action."

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, has called for an international commission into the raid.

"We have clearly stated that we would review our ties with Israel if all Turks not released by the end of the day," he said on Wednesday.

Davutoglu also said Turkey was ready to normalise ties with Israel if it lifted its blockade on Gaza, saying "it was time calm replaces anger".

Relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated rapidly since the deadly raid, with most of the bloodshed occurring on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists.

State media reported on Wednesday that Turkey's justice ministry is considering legal action against Israel.

Officials are looking into both domestic and international law to see what action might be undertaken after Monday's operation in international waters, a report by the Anatolia news agency said.