Amid speculation that France would detonate its first nuclear test in the South Pacific early today, President Jacques Chirac hinted yesterday that he might order an early halt to the test programme.
His comments seemed designed to soften international criticism and growing domestic disquiet. But it was unclear to what extent he was signalling a real shift in French policy.
Mr Chirac said, in a television interview, he would cut short the maximum programme of eight tests if the early explosions yielded the scientific data France needed. Paris has always made it clear, however, that eight tests was a maximum number; the government has previously said that it might carry out no more than seven.
"If we have the information we need to change over to simulation, before the eight tests, obviously, regardless of the opinions of whomever, I will stop the blasts. My objective is not [necessarily] to carry out eight tests," Mr Chirac said.
He went on to promise, however, that the test series would be completed more rapidly than the nine months originally allowed. "In any case, we will stop the tests before the date I have indicated, which was May 31st," he said. Earlier a senior French official told Agence France Presse that the first test would be detonated at 6am GMT today.
Two anti-nuclear protesters, alleged by French military sources to be former British SAS men, have been detained at the Muroroa Atoll test site. The two men used kayaks towed by an inflatable dinghy, to reach the atoll on Monday but were arrested by French security guards.
Greenpeace denied last night that the unnamed pair were former SAS men but confirmed that they were part of the envoronmental pressure group's continuing campaign to disrupt the tests.
Mr Chirac was asked whether he had any regrets about his decision to resume testing in view of the world-wide campaign against France, and the 63 per cent of French people who, according to the latest opinion poll, oppose the tests. He said the need for the tests was "incontestable", a necessary completion of the series interrupted in 1992 when his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, agreed to the international moratorium on testing.
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