|Thousands of Turkish protestors greet the Mavi Marmara on its return to Istanbul [EPA]
Thousands of pro-Palestinian activists in the Turkish city of Istanbul welcomed the return of the Mavi Marmara, a ship part of an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip that was subject to a deadly Israeli raid in May.
Hundreds of balloons were released on Sunday as the Mavi Marmara sailed into Istanbul's Sarayburnu port, following repairs at a port on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. The ship is owned by a Turkish charity, the Foundation for Human Rights, Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).
The activists waved Palestinian and Turkish flags and chanted "Down with Israel" and "Allah is great" as they greeted the vessel.
Protesters also boarded boats to welcome the approaching ship, which was draped with a banner of faces of the nine activists from Turkey who were killed during the raid.
The ship was part of an international flotilla carrying supplies to Gaza in a campaign to breach the blockade when Israeli troops intercepted the convoy.
According to IHH, the Mavi Marmara will be part of a new flotilla set to leave for Gaza on May 31, 2011, exactly one year after the deadly raid.
Eight Turks and an American-Turkish teenager were killed in the violence that erupted on board the vessel.
The incident strained relations between former allies Turkey and Israel that were already tense over Turkish criticism of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. Turkey recalled its ambassador and pushed for international condemnation of Israel.
Turkey has since said it wants improved ties with Israel, but is not backtracking from its demands that Israel apologise for the raid and compensate victims before relations can return to normal.
Meanwhile, Turkish and Israeli officials met in Geneva earlier this month to try to mend ties, after Turkey sent aircraft and fire-fighters to help Israel battle a wildfire. But they failed to agree on terms.
Israel insists commandos opened fire in self-defence after meeting what they called unexpected resistance when they boarded the Mavi Marmara. Israel wants Turkey to return its ambassador to Tel Aviv and to drop the flotilla incident from the international agenda.
After the raid, Israel significantly eased import restrictions over land, and announced it would permit increased exports from Gaza.