JERUSALEM — Israel faced a diplomatic firestorm Monday over its deadly attack against a protest flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
Foreign leaders and protest organizers accused Israel of using excessive force in the raid aboard a Turkish ship in international waters, but Israel defended its actions, saying that soldiers were ambushed with knives and metal bars, as well as handguns wrested from the commandos.
Israel's military said nine protesters were killed in the late-night raid, which occurred about 40 miles off Israel's coast. Protest organizers put the death toll at 16. Dozens were wounded, including seven Israeli soldiers.
Video of the attack released by the Israeli military, Turkish television and other media sources depicted a dramatic high-seas brawl in which Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto a ship and immediately clashed with activists on board.
Responding to the brewing crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his visit to Canada to return to Israel and canceled a White House visit with President Barack Obama.
U.S. officials expressed regret at the loss of life but stopped short of criticizing Israel until full details of the incident were released.
Elsewhere, however, international leaders condemned Israel's interception of the pro-Palestinian convoy, which was attempting to break through Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and bring food, medical supplies, clothing and construction supplies to the territory.
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting, and Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the council to condemn the attack, call for an independent international investigation and demand that Israel lift the blockade. The meeting continued late into the night.
After the raid, Israel's navy escorted the six vessels in the flotilla to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where the government had set up tents to accommodate those on board. Protesters were offered the choice of flying home immediately or facing arrest and imprisonment. By Monday evening, most were opting to be arrested, officials said, with as many as 600 activists from 40 nations still being held.
The Israeli military did not permit any of the detained passengers to be interviewed by reporters or to communicate with family members. The passengers include members of the European Parliament, journalists and artists.
No information has been released about the identities of those killed. Several dozen activists were being treated in Israeli hospitals.
Israeli officials Monday said their soldiers had expected moderate resistance and civil disobedience but instead encountered organized attacks the moment the commandos rappelled onto the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, which had more than 500 passengers.
Soldiers had been ordered to treat the raid as a "police action" and only use paintball rifles to control the crowds, according to a report by Ynet, an Israeli news website. But as the first soldiers boarded, they were quickly beset by protesters allegedly using switchblades, slingshots, deck chairs, marbles, metal balls and metal bars, military officials said.
According to the military, two protesters grabbed handguns from two commandos and began firing. At least one soldier was thrown from the top deck of the boat to the lower deck by activists.
At some point, military commanders authorized soldiers to use handguns against the crowds, military officials said.
"Soldiers acted appropriately in this situation," said the military's chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi. "Soldiers found themselves in a life-threatening situation and used their weapons."
Two soldiers suffered gunshot wounds and one was stabbed, officials said.
Protest organizers gave a dramatically different version of events, insisting that activists were unarmed and that Israeli soldiers began shooting as soon as they boarded.
Leaders of Free Gaza, one of the pro-Palestinian groups that organized the flotilla, said Israeli soldiers launched an "illegal" night raid while the flotilla was still in international waters.
"They can spin it any way they want," said Greta Berlin, a Free Gaza leader, speaking from the group's office in Cyprus. "We're the civilians and they are the military. This was murder."
According to Berlin, flotilla organizers hoped to bring international attention to Israel's blockade of Gaza and anticipated a confrontation with soldiers, "but we never expected this kind of violence." The group had launched nine previous ships to Gaza, and five were permitted to pass after being searched by the Israeli navy, she said.
The raid set off the strongest international condemnation of Israel since its 22-day military assault against militants in the Gaza Strip 18 months ago.
Among those countries voicing dismay over Israel's actions were Spain, Sweden, France and Germany, as well as the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League.
Thousands of demonstrators protested at Israeli embassies in Jordan and Turkey. Smaller protests erupted in parts of the West Bank, and some warned that the incident could endanger recently launched peace talks.
The Arab League, which represents 22 countries, released a statement assailing "this terrorist act" and called for an "urgent meeting at the level of representatives to look into this heinous crime committed by Israeli forces against unarmed civilians that left scores of dead and wounded." The meeting is expected to be held today.
Reaction from Turkey, whose citizens accounted for more than half the flotilla's passengers, was particularly harsh. The foreign minister warned of "irreparable" harm to Israeli-Turkish relations.
Turkey was once one of Israel's only allies in the region, with close economic and military ties. But over the last 18 months, the relationship has soured, particularly after Israel's assault in Gaza. Israel has accused Turkey of shifting its loyalty toward Iran.