Commandos seize protesting MPs at nuclear test site

Mururoa fall-out: Blow to Greenpeace campaign as French board third vessel and deport British activists

ROBERT MILLIKEN

Papeete

France is holding eight foreign politicians at Mururoa Atoll, its nuclear testing ground in the South Pacific, after French commandos seized a yacht belonging to Greenpeace on Saturday. The environmental group'syacht La Ribaude had been on a protest voyage against the nuclear tests.

Shortly before the commandos boarded the vessel, the French authorities in Tahiti deported two British Greenpeace activists who infiltrated Mururoa last week hours before France exploded a test nuclear weapon under the lagoon. Alan Baker, 31, of Lewes, East Sussex, and Matthew Whiting, 36, from Herefordshire, entered the lagoon in a dinghy and remained undetected for almost 24 hours before the test on Wednesday.

Those arrested on board La Ribaude were politicians from Australia, Japan, Sweden, Italy and Luxembourg, a crew of two US Greenpeace activists, two members of the Austrian environmental group Global 2000 and seven journalists. The French-registered yacht broke away from a flotilla of 10 international protest vessels to sail across the 12-mile military exclusion zone around Mururoa on Saturday afternoon and head towards the test site.

The legislators joined the yacht after a one-week voyage from Papeete, the Tahitian capital, on a Greenpeace ''shuttle'' vessel, the Machias. They had formulated a joint declaration calling on Jacques Chirac, the French President, to abandon further tests and condemningFrance's ''arrogant, colonial attitude'' towards the South Pacific nations.

The two Australians are from the New South Wales state parliament. One of them, Ian Cohen, a Green MP, achieved fame when Australian authorities arrested him a decade ago after he paddled a surfboard across the bows of two British and US nuclear-powered warships in Australian waters. He left Papeete with his surfboard, declaring he would try to paddle it into the Mururoa lagoon.

In the past 10 days Greenpeace has lost to the French military three vessels used in the campaign to disrupt the seven or eight underground nuclear tests which France plans to conduct by May. The others were its two flagships, Rainbow Warrior II and Greenpeace.

Mr Baker and Mr Whiting, the deported Britons, were flown to Papeete on Friday night, where they were brought before a French judge, then put on board a flight for Paris on Saturday. Greenpeace plans to hold a press conference with them in London today.

Paul Ronciere, the French High Commissioner in Papeete, said the men told police interrogators at Mururoa that they were former SAS commandos. In response to Greenpeace denials that the men were from the SAS, Mr Ronciere said: ''Maybe they have invented a past that wasn't theirs. Maybe they were tourists, but Mururoa is not yet open to tourists.'' He added: ''They were not voluntary people. They were contracted, signed a contract and paid to fulfil their functions.''

Thomas Schultz, a Greenpeace spokesman, said of Mr Ronciere's account: ''Bullshit.'' The men had disguised themselves in French legionnaire uniforms and cut their hair short to try to blend with the crowd at Mururoa. ''They walked around and pasted Greenpeace stickers on the island,'' Mr Schultz said.

The French authorities in Papeete have brought before a court eight Polynesians involved in last Wednesday's riots following the nuclear test, and sentenced them to prison terms of four to 14 months.

Mr Ronciere said the sentences were imposed under French laws enabling the authorities to deal swiftly with people ''caught in the act''. Another 37 arrested in the riots are awaiting hearings.

The French administration has sacked Hiro Tefaarere, a senior police officer in Papeete and general secretary of a trade union which called a general strike after last week's test. Mr Ronciere said he had helped to conduct the riots at Papeete airport. ''We cannot tolerate a French public servant doing that,'' he said.

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