Papeete woke up yesterday to more violence after a night of rioting that left scenes of devastation in the capital of Tahiti. New skirmishes broke out at the international airport and police fired tear gas and stun grenades at youths in the centre of Papeete. In a show of force, French riot police beat their shields with batons as they marched outside the French High Commission.
But after a storm of international protest and a day of fierce rioting in Tahiti on Wednesday, France yesterday signalled that it would reduce the number of nuclear tests it will conduct in the South Pacific.
Angry protesters had stormed through Papeete in the most violent disturbances that Tahiti has ever seen. Hundreds of young Tahitians took to the streets, demanding an end to testing, which resumed on Tuesday and to colonial rule from Paris.
France yesterday rushed reinforcements to the island to back up the police and soldiers already there. Forty Foreign Legionnaires and 300 paramilitary gendarmes were sent to bolster the 170 paratroopers and 300 gendarmes in situ.
As commuters headed into Papeete yesterday morning, dozens of policemen staged a surprise attack on a group of about 12 youths on a knoll overlooking the air terminal. A Reuters photographer said the police moved on the group from behind, firing stun grenades and forcing them 500 yards from the airport.
It was not clear whether the youths, who had T-shirts wrapped around their faces, were anti-nuclear or independence activists. About 10 minutes later, the youths moved back towards the airport and police fired tear gas and more grenades, arresting one youth, the photographer said.
After a day of running battles between the police and stone-throwing protesters at the airport and a night of full-scale rioting and looting in Papeete on Wednesday, the capital awoke to what resembled a war zone. Dozens of buildings were burned down or gutted, airport buildings destroyed and 20 people injured.
The fury added to the international pressure on France to do something to deflect criticism of its nuclear tests.
Signs that Jacques Chirac's government would reduce the number of tests emerged from morning meetings between the French foreign and defence ministers and an Australian parliamentary delegation. Such a possibility also was broached by the left-of-centre newspaper Liberation, which was the paper chosen to ''leak'' Mr Chirac's decision to resume testing three months ago. Liberation quoted scientists as saying the data France requires could be extrapolated from three or four tests.
Gordon Bilney, Australia's minister for Pacific Island Affairs and one of the most outspoken Australian critics of the tests, said that French defence minister, Charles Millon, had gone no further on the record than his earlier statement of ''six to eight'' tests. But Mr Bilney strongly hinted at other, off the record, assurances. The fact that the delegationwas received so promptly by senior ministers was seen as evidence of France's concern about world reaction.
In what may be another attempt to placate world opinion, France also indicated that, in a sharp reversal of policy, it might re-consider its 30-year old commitment to a nuclear deterrent that is independent of the US.
Anti-nuclear activists and independence leaders blamed the rioting on France's resumption of nuclear testing. However, the President of French Polynesia, Gaston Flosse, blamed anti-nuclear and independence leaders, as well as foreign media and international politicians in Tahiti for provoking the protesters.
"I condemn the instigators of violence and I condemn the hatred which the spokesmen of these people have called for," Mr Flosse said.
"Do these acts reflect the future face of independence which the organisers of these events are demanding?" he said. Mr Chirac, he said, "called me last night to give me encouragement and his support. We will fight this."
Test fall-out, pages 12,13
Leading article, page 14Reuse content