Fire attack at French consulate

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SECURITY at French official buildings in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries was tightened yesterday following the burning down of the French consulate in Perth. The attack is believed to be linked to France's planned resumption of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.

In New South Wales, the fire brigade said yesterday that it would not fight any fires that broke out on properties in Sydney owned by the French government.

Perth residents were woken by the fire in the early hours yesterday. Despite efforts by fire fighters to contain it, the 80-year-old building was completely destroyed. Father Brian Morrison, who lived next to the building, said: "I was blown out of bed by what I thought was an explosion."

Anti-nuclear demonstrators, including Greenpeace representatives, held a peaceful protest outside the consulate on Friday. Public opinion has hardened throughout the Pacific region against the French plan to begin conducting eight nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia from September. Australian union leaders have called for a boycott of French goods.

French officials reacted swiftly in linking the consulate fire directly to the public protests which have engulfed Australia and New Zealand since President Chirac announced the nuclear tests resumption on Tuesday. The Australian media has depicted Mr Chirac as an arrogant neo-colonialist who regards antipodean opposition to his plan with contempt. For their part, French residents in Australia have complained to the country's Anti- Discrimination Board that they have been abused and insulted by Australians over the past few days.

Dominique Girard, the French ambassador in Canberra, said of yesterday's fire: "This is an unjustified criminal act." Robert Pearce, the Honorary French Consul in Perth, said: "I don't think anybody expects this kind of thing in Australia. It is an international affront."

Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, condemned the fire. "I am disturbed and disappointed," Mr Keating said. "All Australians have been angered by the French decision... the deliberate destruction of property is not part of the Australian way of life and must be rejected on every occasion."

In Papeete yesterday, the head of the French Polynesian government protested against the decision to resume nuclear tests in the territory. A few hours after demonstrators paraded through Papeete, in Tahiti's first public protest against the new tests, Milou Ebb, the territorial assembly leader, said he was in "total disagreement" with Mr Chirac's decision.

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