Britain refuses to join clamour against Chirac

Nuclear test: France ignores international outcry over explosion six times as powerful as the one at Mururoa

The British government yesterday refused to condemn the latest French nuclear test, drawing criticism from Labour and the Liberal Democrats and expressions of concern from Australia and New Zealand.

The Government's stance towards the French nuclear programme, born of its desire to stay close to President Jacques Chirac, seems destined to become an embarrassing issue at the Commonwealth Summit in Auckland next month.

The size of the latest explosion and the aggressive French action towards Greenpeace protest vessels set off a renewed wave of anger among Pacific nations from Japan to Australasia. The United States "regretted" the explosion.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said yesterday: "It is for the French to justify these nuclear tests." Mr Rifkind said the important fact was that France remained committed to a comprehensive test ban treaty when its last test was complete.

This carefully contrived position aims to shift the burden of argument on to the French, while avoiding any offence to France. It did not please the Australian Foreign Minister Bob McMullan. "We are disappointed at the British government's reaction," he said.

"It's a pity but they are not very significant players in the region any more." The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger, said he had hoped Britain would join other Commonwealth countries in condemning nuclear testing.

In response, the Foreign Office said it would not be "dragooned" into taking a position in one camp or the other.

But the Labour MP Alf Norris, chairman of the cross-party Anzac group, said Britain was staying silent while old friends were wronged. He said John Major was responsible for a "deafening silence" on the issue.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, also criticised Mr Rifkind's policy. "The British government's continual silence is ... creating a serious rift in our relations with members of the Commonwealth like Australia and New Zealand," he said.

British officials again deniedany data from the French tests would be shared with Britain. Technical differences between the countries' arsenals make it unlikely that French test results would serve much purpose.

The test happened within hours of French commandos seizing and taking into custody the Manutea, a Greenpeace yacht. It was the last of four vessels Greenpeace has lost to French raids around Mururoa atoll, where the first in the series of tests took place, and Fangataufa since early last month.

Unlike two of the earlier seizures, Rainbow Warrior II and Vega, the Manutea was outside the 12-mile (20km) military exclusion zone when the commandos boarded it. French military authorities said the arrest was justified because an inflatable craft had been launched into the prohibited zone from the Manutea. Lynette Thorstensen, the Greenpeace campaign director in Tahiti, denied this, and claimed the craft came from another vessel among the international peace flotilla.

Oscar Temaru, leader of Tavini Huiraatira, the Polynesian Liberation Front, the main independence party in French Polynesia, said he had hoped the international outrage and the riots in Tahiti which followed the 5 September test might have persuaded President Jacques Chirac to abandon the rest of what is scheduled to be seven or eight tests up to May.

"My feeling today is more one of pain than anger," he said. "We had confidence in the human being of Jacques Chirac, but for the second time he has allowed his animal instinct to take over. Mururoa and Fangataufa are part of Polynesian heritage. A Polynesian has three symbols in life: land, sea and air. The French have destroyed all three. It's like losing a family member again."

The French military surprised everyone by taking the unusual step of conducting the latest test on a Sunday, strictly observed as a day of worship among Polynesians, more than 80 per cent of whom are Christians. Tahiti was deserted, with most people at church or at home. It may have been a tactical move to pre-empt a repetition of last month's violence, when 3,000 people burned and looted the airport and shops in Papeete, the capital.

More than 1,000 gendarmes and riot police patrolled Papeete last night. They were backed by almost five times the number of police who struggled to control the September riots. Tension was high, but anti-nuclear and pro-independence leaders called for restraint.

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