Nuclear anger swells in Tahiti

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THE capital of the island of Tahiti was thrown into chaos for a second day yesterday as thousands protesting against the resumption of French nuclear tests in the South Pacific blocked its main roads.

French radio said there were also protests in Noumea, the capital of French-controlled New Caledonia in the western Pacific, where some 2,000 people demonstrated peacefully. In Tokyo, about 230 people gathered in a park to oppose the tests while in Paris 5,000 people marched along main streets on the Right Bank, carrying banners against the tests and shouting slogans.

The blockade at Papeete started on Thursday as the Rainbow Warrior II, flagship of the environmental lobby group Greenpeace, sailed into port. The demonstration organisers estimated that 15,000 Tahitians, carrying anti-nuclear and independence banners and beating drums, had converged on Papeete to greet the vessel. Hundreds of protesters from a score of anti-nuclear groups, led by the Tavini Huiraatira independence movement, spent the night at the barricades.

"It is a mood of retribution, anger, revenge, outrage and indignation," said Oscar Temaru, leader of the Liberation Front of Polynesia, French Polynesia's main independence group. "That is what you see today." The colonial authorities refused permission for the Rainbow Warrior to dock, but allowed it to make temporary anchor in the harbour.

A delegation of Tahitians delivered a letter, addressed to French President Jacques Chirac, to the French high commissioner demanding a local referendum on the resumption of testing.

Mr Chirac's approval of eight nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll between September and next May has angered Tahitians fearful of radiation contamination. The announcement has also put new vigour into French Polynesia's independence movement.

Mr Chirac has said his decision to resume tests in the Pacific is "irrevocable". But if the anti-nuclear mood grows, the prospects of civil disobedience must give him pause. Police action against Tahitians while nuclear devices were being detonated on Tahitian territory would be deeply embarrassing to France, the South Pacific's last colonial power.

Independence movements in the French South Pacific have previously been linked to nuclear testing; protests rose with opposition to testing in the 1980s and ebbed when Paris introduced a moratorium in 1992.

Greenpeace said independent anti-nuclear protesters sailed for Mururoa from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands on Friday aboard the Bifrost, a Danish ship modelled on a Viking vessel. They were expected to reach the atoll in about 10 days. Rainbow Warrior II also hopes to arrive in Mururoa by 10 July, the 10th anniversary of the bombing and sinking of the original Rainbow Warrior by French secret agents in New Zealand.

On board the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace campaign leader Stephanie Mills said she and another crew member have been told they will be deported immediately they go ashore as they are banned persons, having been deported in 1992 after a previous protest voyage.