With a nuclear test seemingly imminent, the French naval commander in the South Pacific issued a stern warning yesterday after commandos arrested four Greenpeace campaigners who tried to raid one of the two atoll test sites.
In the environmental group's second attempt in three days to occupy Mururoa Atoll, France's main testing ground, a French Polynesian and three American activists rode into the lagoon in two inflatable dinghies in the early hours of Monday.
According to Greenpeace officials in Papeete, the French Polynesian capital, they planned to go to the headquarters of Vice-Admiral Philippe Euverte, the French armed-forces commander in the South Pacific, and deliver a protest letter over France's plan to conduct seven or eight underground nuclear-weapons tests at Mururoa and the neighbouring Fangataufa Atoll from this month up to May.
Commandos seized the dinghies and arrested their occupants before they could get anywhere near the commander's headquarters.
Admiral Euverte, meanwhile, turned his attention to other vessels in the international protest flotilla which has gathered in the ocean near Mururoa and Fangataufa, about 600 miles south of French Polynesia's main island of Tahiti. About 30 vessels, mostly sailing craft, are believed to be left in the flotilla since the French raided and impounded the two Greenpeace flagships, Rainbow Warrior II and MV Greenpeace, last Friday.
Most of them have stayed outside the 12-mile military exclusion zone around the atolls up to now, but yesterday the French military said that some had begun to sail in a protest line between Mururoa and Fangataufa.
The two atolls are 25 miles apart, and their exclusion zones overlap. Admiral Euverte yesterday sent a communique to all skippers in the protest fleet, declaring that France had suspended the right of "innocent passage" in the sea surrounding the atolls.
"The territorial sea between Fangataufa and Mururoa is only an optional and not a necessary itinerary," he said. "The right that you claim to exercise from today at noon cannot in any case be accepted. If you still persist, I will enforce the law. You will expose your crews to be questioned and your vessels taken under our control."
It was the second warning the commander has issued to the growing protest flotilla since late August.
With the loss of the two largest and best-equipped Greenpeace vessels, the future of the seaborne protest campaign remains unclear in the face of France's determination to carry out its tests. Greenpeace has two sailing vessels, Vega and Manutea, in the flotilla, but neither has the sophisticated communications of the impounded ships.
The Mururoa raid on Monday was a small-scale affair compared to that of last Friday, in which eight Greenpeace inflatables managed to enter the lagoon before commandos stopped them and impounded the vessels from which they were launched.
Greenpeace strategists appear to have designed Monday's raid to convey that they are still not out of the picture.