ISTANBUL, Turkey - Thousands of pro-Palestinian activists welcomed back to Istanbul on Sunday the ship that was the scene of bloodshed during an Israeli raid in May on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip.

Activists, meanwhile, promised to send more ships in an effort to break the Gaza blockade.

Hundreds of balloons were released as the Mavi Marmara sailed into Istanbul's Sarayburnu port, after repairs at a port on Turkey's Mediterranean coast.

The activists, mostly members of pro-Islamic groups, waved Palestinian and Turkish flags and chanted "Down with Israel" and "Allah is great" as they greeted the vessel.

Protesters also boarded boats to welcome the approaching ship, which bore a huge poster of the nine activists who were killed during the raid.

"We promise that we will go again and again to Gaza, until Gaza and Palestine are free," Israeli-Swedish activist Dror Elimelech Feiler told the crowd.

The ship was part of an international flotilla carrying supplies to Gaza in a campaign to breach the blockade of the territory. Israeli troops intercepted the convoy, and eight Turks and an American-Turkish teenager were killed in violence that erupted on the Mavi Marmara.

Israel says that its commandos opened fire in self-defense after meeting unexpected resistance when they boarded the ship.

The confrontation inflamed relations between former allies Turkey and Israel, already tense because of Turkish criticism of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. Turkey recalled its ambassador and pushed for international condemnation of Israel.

Turkey has since said that it wants improved ties with Israel, but it has not backtracked from its demands that Israel apologize and compensate victims before relations can return to normal.

High-level Turkish and Israeli officials met in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month to try to mend fences, after Turkey sent aircraft and firefighters to help Israel battle a wildfire. But they failed to agree on terms.

Israel wants Turkey to return its ambassador to Tel Aviv and to drop the flotilla confrontation from the international agenda.

Speaking at the welcoming ceremony, Ahmet Dogan, the father of the American-Turkish teenager who died, Furkan Dogan, said the victims' families wanted more than an apology and compensation - they wanted the Gaza embargo lifted, and for "all those in the Israeli command chain involved in the incident" to be punished.

After the raid, Israel significantly eased Gaza import restrictions over land. It also announced it would permit increased exports from the strip.