ATHENS, Greece (Ma'an) — The US Boat to Gaza left the Athens Port at 4:50 p.m. on Friday, expecting to be stopped by Greek authorities in the country's coastal waters on its way to meet a French ship that had already left port.
Shortly after it sailed the US boat was intercepted by Greek officials, at the same time organizers of the Canadian boat to Gaza said the coastguard surrounded their vessel and prevented it from leaving.
At sea, the US ship attempted to secure passage through Greek officials who said they had orders to halt the vessel.
7:58 p.m. US Boat to Gaza turns around, heads back to Athens port.
7:35 Activists on board the US ship told an approaching Greek military ship "This is a US-flagged civilian ship, you cannot come on this ship. Put those weapons down."
7:20 – Greek naval ship approaches US boat, witnesses identify at least 12 armed, masked soldiers holding teargas launchers. Protesters gather on board yelling "don't hurt us, we are unarmed civilians."
6:38 – Second coastguard ship leaves scene, first pulls back from boat, remains stationed at stern. Captain says he awaits news from the headquarters of the coastguard in Athens. Remains stationed at sea.
5:53 – Second ship from Greek coastguard arrives at US Boat to Gaza.
5:35 – Greek coastguard officials ask to see ship's paperwork, which the captain insists he filed weeks ago. Via radio communication, the coastguard insists that the ship return to port for the results of its inspection, captain replies that an inspection has been completed and announces: "We cannot return to the port, we fear sabotage," as coastguard says there are orders to prevent the ship from leaving Greek waters.
5:25 – Greece officials make contact with US Boat captain asking vessel to halt passage, captain cuts ship engines.
Activists aboard the vessel gathered at its bow in the face of the Greek coastguard ship, holding up signs calling for the end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, and chanting slogans asking that the boat be allowed to pass.
5:20 – Greek port authority blocks way of ship an estimated five nautical miles from shore.
A source in Athens told Ma'an shortly before the ship sailed that the Greek government issued an order prohibiting the ships from sailing.
Greek waters extend an average of six nautical miles from the coastline, after which are international waters, where the ship hoped to rendezvous with a boat of Jordanian activists who sailed earlier in the day from France, and are en route to Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla II.
Amid the din of celebratory music as the US ship left port, organizer Anne Wright told Ma'an that any attempt to stop the ship would be "pure evidence of the might of the Israeli government," who allegedly threatened to cut economic ties with Greece over the flotilla.
"I appeal to the people of Greece to protect and support this civilian to civilian initiative, and call on them to demonstrate in support."
Organizers once again called on the people of Greece to protest against the government decision to halt the ship, with Americans slated to sail on other flotilla ships saying they were preparing to stage a demonstration in Athens' main square
The US boat was the only ship from the 10-boat flotilla to leave port on Friday, with reports saying that a Canadian vessel might also attempt to leave, while a Spanish boat had tried and failed.
Organizers of the US boat said they are defying a Greek police order to remain at the dock until an inspection process is complete, following a complaint made by an Israeli organization alleging that the ship was unfit to sail.
Ten boats were set to sail from ports in Athens and Turkey, with an Irish ship forced to withdraw after damage done to its propeller rendered it unfit for sail, with activists crying sabotage. A group of Jordanian activists announced Thursday that they would join the Freedom Flotilla II, and purchased a ship in Greece for the purpose.
All ships were bound for the Gaza Strip, in an effort to break Israel's five year siege on the Palestinian coastal enclave.
Reporting by Mya Guarneri from the US Boat to Gaza