(Reuters) - The Greek coastguard intercepted a boat carrying U.S. activists soon after they set sail from Greece on Friday to join a pro-Palestinian flotilla to Gaza, one of the activists said.
The boat, dubbed "The Audacity of Hope," had just left Perama port, near Piraeus, for the open seas, a Reuters witness said.
A flotilla of boats planning to challenge Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip is expected to sail next week, after repeated delays that activists blame on Israeli sabotage. Israel has denied the accusations.
"We are just here, two miles off Piraeus. We've been stopped by the coastguard, their ship maneuvered in front of us and they are now talking to the captain, they want us to turn around," Ann Wright, one of the activists, told Reuters.
"We are non-violent, we pose no threat," she added, saying that the group was informed of the sailing ban just as it was setting off.
Greek authorities said earlier on Friday that ships bound for Gaza were prohibited from leaving Greek ports.
It was not immediately clear how the boat's departure would affect the overall flotilla plans.
Greek coastguard says orders are to stop ship
July 1, 2011
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.
6:38 p.m. - Second coastguard ship leaves scene, first pulls back from boat, remains stationed at stern.
5:53 p.m. - Second ship from Greek coastguard arrives at US Boat to Gaza.
5:35 p.m. - 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 p.m. - Greece officials make contact with US Boat captain asking vessel to halt passage, captain cuts ship engines
5:20 p.m. - Greek port authority blocks way of ship an estimated five nautical miles from shore.
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.
Greek waters extend an average of six nautical miles from the coastline, after which are international waters.
A source in Athens told Ma'an shortly before the ship sailed. that the Greek government issued an order prohibiting the ships from sailing.
Amid the din of celebratory music as the 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."
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.
Wright said both the Canadian and Spanish boats are tied up in similar paperwork, but noted that she hoped the audacity of the US crew would encourage others to follow suit.
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