A grenade exploded in one of the campaigners' inflatable boats, hitting a crewman, and the cannon was fired on to the Warrior's deck. Greenpeace members said a platoon of armed commandos were with the French patrol, escorting fishermen in the Bay of Biscay.
None of the Warrior's 22 crew was injured, but they accused the frigate, Enseigne de Vaisseau Jacabout, and tug, Malabar, of intimidation. The French fishing authorities, however, accused the environmentalists of provoking the attack by trying to cut fishing nets.
The Warrior, replacement for the ship blown up by the French secret service in Auckland harbour in 1985, moved into the Bay after Spanish fishermen attacked Cornish trawlers over the use of large, illegal nets. It was monitoring the use of drift nets, which it claims can indiscriminately snare sea life other than the target catch.
Ian Roberts, who was aboard the inflatable, said: 'It was a completely unprovoked attack. A stun grenade was thrown at us and hit me on the leg before exploding. Thank God it didn't go off near the fuel tank.' Michel Baert, the French maritime commander, said the inflatable's crew had been trying to cut the fishing nets. Greenpeace denied it.
Meanwhile yesterday, an English fishing boat, the Wendy Palfrey, set sail for the Bay of Biscay for the first time since hostilities broke out. Three other British vessels have remained in the trouble zone, where earlier in the week, one boat had its nets cut.
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