Hundreds of Turkish activists from the Gaza aid flotilla attacked by Israeli commandos returned home to a heroes' welcome Thursday while Israel took a new diplomatic battering with another ally recalling its ambassador.
In the face of widespread protests over Monday's raid, Israel rejected a UN Human Rights Council move to set up an international inquiry into the attack. But a new boat carrying Malaysian and Irish activists could arrive off Gaza on Saturday.
About 1,000 people, some chanting anti-Israeli slogans, packed Istanbul airport in the middle of the night to greet planes that brought back 466 activists and nine bodies from Israel.
Three other planes brought 19 wounded activists. A separate flight carrying 31 Greek activists, three French nationals and an American flew into Athens where they were greeted by a government minister. Six Germans were also flown out of Israel.
The dead were eight Turks and a US national of Turkish origin, officials said. All had been shot, according to forensic experts quoted by Anatolia news agency.
Bulent Yildirim, head of the Islamic charity which spearheaded the Gaza aid operation, charged that Israeli soldiers had killed activists indiscriminately when they stormed the Mavi Marmara.
All the dead were on the Turkish ferry which led six ships trying to get through the blockade around the Palestinian enclave.
Yildirim highlighted the death of one journalist he named as Cevdet. "He was just taking pictures. He was shot at from no more than a meter and his brain exploded ... one of our friends was shot even after he had surrendered," Yildirim, who heads the Foundation of Humanitarian Relief (IHH), told reporters.
"They killed whoever they laid hands on. They even threw some of our friends into the sea."
Yildirim said activists attacked the Israeli forces with iron bars "in self defense". He added that they also seized the soldiers' weapons but threw them in the sea rather than using them.
Israel has said the commandos opened fire after they came under attack.
Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul McGeough told his newspaper from Turkey that Israeli commando boats had circled the flotilla like "hyenas hunting animals in the night" and that a colleague was shot with a stun gun.
Yildirim said the death toll was higher than announced. "We were given the bodies of nine martyrs, but we have a longer list. There are missing people. Our doctors handed over 38 injured, on our return they (the Israelis) said there were only 21 injured."
He vowed to organize bigger convoys if Israel does not end its blockade of Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas.
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul said that ties with Israel "will never be the same" after the attack.
South Africa, meanwhile, joined the diplomatic offensive by recalling its ambassador to Israel. Junior Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim said the gesture was to show South Africa's "strongest condemnation of the attack".
Turkey's ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol, who was recalled after the raid, returned to Turkey Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the activists as "violent supporters of terrorism", charging that Israeli forces were "stabbed, they were clubbed, they were fired upon" as they stormed the boat.
"This was not a love boat. This was a hate boat," he said.
The UN Human Rights Council said Wednesday it would set up an independent international probe into Israel's interception of the ships.
Israel rejected the move. "The authority of this council, which once again is working stubbornly against Israel, has reached rock bottom," said foreign ministry spokesman Ygal Palmor.
Organisers say another ship is heading towards Gaza despite the risk of more violence and could arrive there Saturday.
The Rachel Corrie, carrying building supplies along with Irish and Malaysian activists, is in the Mediterranean.
Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin urged Israel to let the ship through, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for Israel to lift its Gaza blockade.
The UN secretary-general also said Israel should provide a "full and detailed account" of the raid.
Israeli officials said 682 people from 42 countries were on the six ships.
Seven wounded activists remained in hospital, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said. An Irishman and two women from Australia and Italy remained in Israel "for technical reasons," he added, without elaborating.