- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2011

ATHENS (AP) — Organizers of a Gaza-bound flotilla said Sunday they have not abandoned their plans to breach Israel’s sea blockade of the territory despite a Greek government ban on their vessels leaving the country’s ports.

The campaign experienced a major setback when Greece announced its restrictions Friday and authorities arrested the captain of a boat carrying American activists that tried to leave Greece without permission.

However, coordinators of the flotilla were trying to maintain momentum with small protests in Athens in the face of increasing calls for them to scrap their campaign. On Saturday, the Middle East Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — urged governments to discourage Gaza-bound flotillas that could escalate tension in the region.

Several protesters from the American vessel that was intercepted by Greek authorities began what they described as an “open-ended fast” outside the U.S. Embassy and planned to stay there overnight. They want Washington to pressure Greece to release their American captain, John Klusmire, and allow them to depart for the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. Embassy provided standard consular services to the American citizens in the flotilla “before and after” the interception of their vessel, spokesman Stuart Smith said.

The Obama administration earlier warned American activists against participating in the flotilla, saying they might be violating U.S. law because Gaza is run by the militant Hamas group, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Greek activist Dimitris Plionis said there would be “some action” at the beginning of the week, but he did not specify what the pro-Palestinian activists were planning to do, presumably because Greek authorities might try to thwart their efforts.

“The ban is there, and we have already said that we are still considering to sail,” Mr. Plionis said. “This story is not finished.”

Without elaborating, he noted that “ships are free to go to other locations” besides Gaza.

The comment raised the possibility that organizers have debated whether their vessels could declare they are bound for another destination, and then turn toward Gaza once they are in international waters. The flotilla plans to carry medicine, construction equipment and other aid to the coastal strip.

Israel says it imposed the blockade in 2007 to stop weapons reaching Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.

Nine activists on a Turkish boat were killed last year in an Israeli raid on a similar flotilla, and Israel eased its land blockade after an international uproar over the incident. But Israel has pledged to thwart any attempt to reach Gaza by sea and has said that aid deliveries can occur through its own established channels.

Activists reject that option, saying Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian territory of 1.5 million people amount to a human rights violation. Egypt recently lifted its own blockade of Gaza at the Rafah crossing, though cross-border traffic is still slow.

In an acknowledgment of the challenges facing the flotilla, a spokesman for a Turkish group that dispatched the boat that was raided by Israel in 2010 said it was “not impossible” that the vessels would head to Gaza. Huseyin Oruc of IHH, an Islamic aid group that earlier pulled its boat out of this year’s flotilla, spoke to the Associated Press in the Greek capital.

IHH has remained involved in flotilla planning. Israel accuses the group of having terrorist links, an allegation its directors strongly deny. IHH, which operates aid projects in many nations, is not on a U.S. list of terror organizations.

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