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Israeli gunships head to sea to block flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists bound for Gaza

HAIFA, Israel (AP) — Israeli gunships headed out to sea Friday to stop a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists from reaching the Gaza Strip, the military said, setting the stage for what could become a dramatic showdown on the high seas.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said the country was prepared to stop the flotilla "at any cost." He called the aid mission a provocation and urged the international community to show understanding for the tough response.

"We really have all determination and political will to prevent this provocation against us," he said. "I think that we're ready at any cost ... to prevent this provocation."

Military officials said an initial group of gunships went out to sea Friday to prepare for the flotilla's arrival. But plans to dispatch additional gunships were put on hold late Friday after reports that the flotilla had encountered mechanical problems, military officials said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said the gunships would remain in port until the flotilla got closer.

The military says it will intercept the ships, escort the vessels to shore and give the activists the choice of deportation or going to jail. Israel says that after a security check, it will transfer the cargo to Gaza through the United Nations.

Officials say they hope the situation will be resolved peacefully, but they are prepared to use force if necessary. Masked naval commandos have been trained for the mission, and Israel has built a large makeshift detention center in a southern port to process the activists.

The activists, among them a Nobel peace laureate, are trying to draw attention to a 3-year-old Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip — imposed after Hamas militants violently seized control of the territory. They say they are carrying tons of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Greta Berlin, one of the organizers of the effort, said a total of seven ships were headed to Gaza, after an eighth vessel suffered a malfunction and had to turn back.

The organizers' website said the flotilla remained off the southern coast of Cyprus, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) northwest of Gaza, Friday evening. Berlin said the flotilla would halt under darkness, and resume the journey early Saturday. It was unclear when they would reach Israeli waters, she said.

The ships originally embarked from Turkey, Greece and other European ports.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, from rearming.

It rejects claims that a humanitarian crisis is brewing in Gaza, saying it allows more than enough food and medicine into the strip. Critics, however, say the blockade has crushed Gaza's economy, eliminated some 100,000 jobs and prevented the territory from repairing the destruction caused by an Israeli military offensive early last year.

Israel has reached out to its Mediterranean neighbors to stop the flotilla from approaching. Turkey, whose president has harshly condemned Israel's Gaza offensive, has rejected the gesture. A Turkish charity is spearheading the aid mission, and Turkish authorities have declined to intervene.

But on Friday, Cyprus said was banning any ship from sailing to Gaza from its shores because organizers of a flotilla trying to break a blockade of the Palestinian territory ignored a government appeal not to involve the island.

Acting government spokesman Titos Christofides condemned the Israeli blockade and expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people, but said the appeal was made to protect the island's "vital interests."

This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza Movement, the pro-Palestinian organization behind the effort, has sent a flotilla of supplies to Gaza. Israel permitted five deliveries to reach Gaza, but has not allowed any ships through since its military offensive, which ended in January 2009.

Among the passengers are Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a Holocaust survivor in her 80s, a retired U.S. army colonel and lawmakers from a dozen European countries.