How Greenpeace came unstuck in the South Pacific

Nuclear-test row: Best-laid plans were not good enough to thwart French commandos who stormed 'Rainbow Warrior II'
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The Independent Online


As the crippled Rainbow Warrior II was towed by its French captors towards the South Pacific island of Hao yesterday, Greenpeace disclosed how elaborate plans to thwart the ship's seizure came unstuck.

Jon Castle, captain of the Rainbow Warrior II, remained uncaptured, but helpless, yesterday in the crow's-nest, where he had barricaded himself before French commandos stormed two Greenpeace vessels early on Friday.

Luis Manuel Pinto da Costa, the ship's Portuguese electrical engineer, revealed that he had rigged the vessel so that Mr Castle could control its engine and steering from the mast in the event of a French raid. But the scale and power of the attack disabled the ship and prevented Mr Castle from sailing single-handed towards the nuclear-test site at Mururoa atoll.

Mr Pinto da Costa was speaking in Papeete, capital of French Polynesia, where he and 21 other Greenpeace campaigners were flown by the French armed forces on Saturday.

"The plan was that someone would appear to be steering from the bridge, but meanwhile Jon would have control over everything, engine, propeller and speed, from a box in the crow's-nest," Mr Pinto da Costa said. "We believed that would be the best way to manoeuvre ourselves to the atoll if we were raided near it." After Mr Castle stationed himself in the crow's- nest, his colleagues cut away the access ladder and greased the mast so that raiders would have difficulty arresting him.

Mr Pinto da Costa said they based their plan on the drama last July, when Rainbow Warrior II managed to approach the entrance to Mururoa lagoon before it was rammed and stormed by commandos. On that occasion, only one team of commandos charged the ship. They focused on the bridge and used tear-gas to immobilise the crew but left the vital functions intact.

On Friday, apparently building on their intelligence from that raid, three commando crews stormed the vessel. They smashed the communications system, cut a hole into the engine-room and severed cables controlling the engine, radio and steering mechanism, making Mr Castle's remote control system worthless.

"It was a good plan, but we didn't bargain for so many troops this time," said Mr Pinto da Costa. "We also thought we might have got closer to Mururoa before it happened."

Rainbow Warrior and Greenpeace, with skeleton Greenpeace crews, were under tow away from Mururoa last night towards Hao, about 300 miles north, where France maintains a base for servicing its test site. A third protest vessel was seized yesterday and towed to Mururoa. The French sloop Kidu was boarded, just inside the military exclusion zone, by two commandos and a gendarme.

The first of the seven or eight nuclear tests which France has said it will start this month is likely to wait until the captured Greenpeace ships are clear of Mururoa.

The crew of a New Zealand navy ship in the area said yesterday they had recorded, via an underwater microphone, what could have been an underground blast. But military officials in Tahiti flatly denied that a test had been held, and the Australian Seismological Centre in Sydney said it had detected no sign of an explosion.

Mr Pinto da Costa left the Rainbow Warrior at the time of the boarding and penetrated the lagoon in one of eight inflatable dinghies, from which he was arrested. Despite the loss of two key vessels, he maintained, Greenpeace's campaign to stop the tests was not over. "I personally can't wait to go back to Mururoa," he said. "Politicians don't manage to stop the tests. Our aim is to go on and on."

The towing of the two Greenpeace ships to Hao will take at least two days. Greenpeace says that it has received no word from the French authorities on when they will receive the vessels back or whether the French intend to impound them until the scheduled completion of the nuclear tests in May. Of 73 people detained on the two ships, the French have allowed 42 to return to Papeete.

The centre of Papeete swarmed yesterday with about 3,000 demonstrators in the third rally since June calling on France to abandon the tests. Oscar Temaru, leader of Tavini Huiraatira, an anti-nuclear, pro-independence party, led the protest after returning from Mururoa, where he had been in the Rainbow Warrior when it was raided. Under a statue of Pouvanaa a Oopa, an independence leader, Mr Temaru introduced parliamentarians who had come to support the anti-test campaign from Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Canada, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the Philippines and American Samoa.

Masayoshi Takemura, the Japanese Finance Minister, who led a delegation of Japanese MPs and survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, declared: "We humans shouldn't be reduced to crazy monkeys, so to speak. I think mankind at this time is on the point of decline; therefore we will have to do our utmost to prevent the resumption of nuclear testing on this planet.''