By Ece Toksabay
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - An anti-war activist told a Turkish court on Thursday that Israeli commandos opened fire from a helicopter during a raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship three years ago, countering Israeli assertions that the soldiers had acted in self defense.
Israeli marines stormed the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla carrying aid to Palestinians, on May 31, 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip. Nine Turks were killed in clashes on board.
The incident triggered a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey, two of Washington's strategic allies in the Middle East, and relations remain fraught.
The trial in absentia of four retired Israeli commanders, including the ex-head of the army, opened in Istanbul last November and resumed on Thursday with testimony from those who were aboard and relatives of the dead.
Israel has dismissed it as a political "show trial".
Kenneth O'Keefe, an Irish-Palestinian former U.S. marine turned anti-war activist who was on board the aid ship, told the court that Israeli soldiers had started shooting from the helicopter, killing several people.
"Within 5 to 10 minutes after the Israeli helicopter approached the ship, I ran into Cevdet Kiliclar's dead body on the deck, before any Israeli commando had boarded the vessel," O'Keefe said, referring to one of the Turkish activists.
"He must have been shot from the air. After seeing Kiliclar's dead body, I went upstairs to the top of the deck and saw several people lying on the ground, wounded or dead."
A September 2011 U.N. report into the incident cited an Israeli commission of inquiry as saying that three stun grenades were thrown from the helicopter but no shots were fired as the Israeli soldiers descended onto the vessel.
"The soldiers from the first helicopter were met with an extreme level of violence from a group of passengers on the vessel. They were shot at and attacked with clubs, iron rods, slingshots and knives," the report said, summarizing Israel's own investigation.
It said the Israeli soldiers resorted to lethal weapons "in response to the violent resistance faced".
LITTLE SIGN OF RAPPROCHEMENT
Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador and froze military cooperation after the 2011 U.N. report largely exonerated the Jewish state and concluded that while Israel had used unreasonable force, its blockade on Gaza was legal.
NATO member Turkey set precise conditions for normalizing its once-extensive ties - an apology, compensation and Israel lifting its embargo on Gaza.
U.S. President Barack Obama brokered an apology from Israel in March and delegations from the two countries subsequently discussed compensation terms, but there has been little sign of concrete progress since then.
The Turkish indictment seeks multiple life sentences for the now-retired Israeli officers over their involvement in the nine killings and the wounding of more than 50 others.
The 144-page indictment names Israel's former Chief-of-Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and three other senior commanders. It lists "inciting murder through cruelty or torture" and "inciting injury with firearms" among the charges.
A few hundred protesters waved Palestinian and Turkish flags and chanted anti-Israeli slogans outside the Istanbul courthouse. The hearing was adjourned to March 27, 2014.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mike Collett-White)