Police fear that two visits by French naval vessels to Britain, due to begin today, could be the target of protesters angry over the Paris government's nuclear testing programme in the South Pacific.
A major operation involving police from three forces will escort and protect the vessels from the moment they arrive in the Thames estuary, and while they are docked at their destination in London's docklands. Metropolitan police will have the added threat posed by the arrival in London of the Pacific Pintail, the ship used to transport nuclear waste from Britain to Japan.
Officers involved in the operation to protect the vessels fear that the protesters may deploy similar tactics to those used in the past in an attempt to block the ships' progress along the Thames, using nets across the river, inflatables and divers. The primary concern is that, because of the water temperature, and the darkness in which most of the shipping movements will take place, protesters could be injured or even killed in their efforts to make their point against the French testing in the Muroroa atoll.
In an effort to relay their fears, senior Scotland Yard officers are understood to have attempted in vain to contact the main anti-nuclear groups to discuss their plans, while recognising their right to protest.
Vessels from Kent and Essex police force will accompany the first visitors along the Thames when they arrive in the early hours of this morning. Police will then provide a cordon from the time the ships, a frigate, two patrol and five training craft, tie up at West India dock until they leave on Monday. A second delegation, consisting of a French diesel submarine, five training ships and two other vessels from the Dutch and Belgian navy, is due to arrive the following Monday and leave on Thursday.
Police will be responsible for policing the visit on water, with the help on land of security staff employed by the London Docklands Development Corporation. However, the French navy will be responsible for the security of their own vessels, which have sovereign status, and it will be for them to deal with any protesters. Greenpeace last night refused to reveal whether it is planning any protest against the ships.
A spokeswoman, Kate Johnston, said: "Our feeling is that for Britain to welcome any French military vessel at this time is a slap in the face for the British public, which has shown it is against French nuclear testing. We think it is a pretty disgusting insult that John Major is giving to the British public.
"The Commonwealth is against French nuclear testing and here is Britain, the head of the Commonwealth, welcoming French military vessels."
Shadow defence secretary Dr David Clark said: "It is an inopportune moment for the British government to have invited French warships to visit London, at the very time when so many British people are appalled and opposed to French nuclear testing."
He added: "I think this is very insensitive indeed."Reuse content