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BC man arrested on Gaza flotilla now in Turkey, says friend

VANCOUVER - A close friend of one of three Canadians detained during a raid off the Gaza coast Monday said early Thursday that he has arrived in Turkey after being detained in Israel.

Kevin Neish of Victoria, along with Rifat Audeh and Farooq Burney, were arrested by Israeli commandos after a violent confrontation at sea that left nine activists dead.

Another 700 activists were arrested when soldiers descended on ships ferrying humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Neish's friend, Zoe Blunt, said in an email early Thursday that Neish reported barely escaping with his life during the raids and that he saw soldiers gun down civilians from helicopters as the raid began.

Blunt said Neish called her from the Istanbul airport Wednesday night and stated that he had been "brutalized" by officers while in custody and suffered deep bruises on his arms after being bound for up to 25 hours by plastic handcuffs.

She said Neish also told him he was "menaced" him with assault rifles and attack dogs and was repeatedly threatened with death.

Blunt said Neish indicated that he may remain in Turkey to attend the funerals of his former shipmates and had not finalized his plans to return to Victoria.

Audeh, meanwhile, said the night before the violent confrontation was a tense and sleepless one. Audeh told The Canadian Press that they’d heard reports Israeli forces might try and "attack" the convoy. Nine people died in the confrontation.

The 37-year-old resident of St. Catharines, Ont., said he was near the cabin of the Mavi Marmara early Monday when he heard the first shots ring out.

"They started shooting at the ship itself for no reason whatsoever," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Amman, Jordan, where he arrived after being released by Israeli authorities. "We’re a humanitarian ship, we were unarmed, we’re all civilians, we had no weapons onboard."

He described a scene of chaos, as activists raced back and forth to help dozens of wounded. Audeh said he watched helplessly as a man standing six or seven metres away from him died after a bullet ripped through his neck.

"Had I tried to move towards him, I definitely would have been shot," he said.

Audeh said the nightmare didn’t end when the bullets stopped flying.

In Israeli custody, he said he and a number of activists were beaten, and were prevented from communicating with the outside world or even using the bathroom.

"We were just heading in there (to the Gaza Strip), we wanted to deliver these supplies," he said. "No one in the world really knows why Israel did what they did."

Video released of the incident by the Israeli government appears to show some activists acting violently towards soldiers. Israeli officials have said the footage proves its soldiers acted in self-defence, but Audeh disagreed.

He pointed out that the raid occurred outside Israel’s territorial waters.

"It was an act of piracy," he said.

"A while" after the first shots rang out, Audeh said, the captain came on over the loudspeaker and urged those who could return to the cabin area to do so. He did.

"I was beaten by the soldiers. They tied my hands behind my back, put a blindfold on me, threw me on the ground," he said. "I thought they were actually going to break my arms and legs while they were doing this because it was very violent."

When they were finally taken off the ship, the day after the altercation, he said the detainees were stripped of their passports and personal belongings, including cameras.

"They confiscated everything and then they took us to jail after that," he said.

"They cut us off from the outside world. We couldn’t call a lawyer, our families, we couldn’t call anybody. Nobody knew whether we were dead or alive until we were finally released (Tuesday)."

Audeh made his way to Jordan, where he’s staying with his parents who call Amman home. He said he doesn’t know when he’ll return to Canada. If another convoy leaves for Gaza, he intends to be on it.

Audeh said he actually had a brief chat with both his fellow Canadians.

"We were happy to find each other on the ship," he said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has not named any of the Canadians, citing privacy laws.

Foreign Affairs did say Wednesday the other two Canadians have been transported to the airport by Israeli authorities and were to make their way to Turkey, before travelling to their final destinations.

Burney is the director of Qatar-based Al-Fakhoora, a group dedicated to promoting freedom of learning for students in Gaza and the West Bank.

Al-Fakhoora posted a statement on its website saying Burney intended to deliver computers to university students in Gaza.

It said he was en route to Istanbul and would shortly return to Qatar.

"We are all relieved to hear the news that our director, Farooq, is safe and will soon be back in Doha," Al-Fakhoora chair Jacqueline O’Rourke said. "It has been an extremely worrying few days for us and Farooq’s family, with no news."

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