NZ navy to clash with French nuke fleet

THE FRENCH and New Zealand navies could clash on the high seas if France pursues anti-nuclear protesters outside the 12-mile exclusion zone round Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific, a New Zealand navy officer indicated last week.

The French task of protecting its test site looks even more complicated following the announcement by Greenpeace yesterday that it will deploy a helicopter off one of its vessels near Mururoa. France will be unable to force the aircraft down over water, and cannot arrest it if the mother ship remains in international waters.

Lieutenant Commander John Campbell, commanding the New Zealand navy research vessel HMNZS Tui, said protesters will be permitted to board his vessel while they were "subject to hot pursuit by French forces" after breaching the zone around the atoll.

The Tui is listed as part of the "Peace Flotilla" which is sailing to the edge of the exclusion zone to try to prevent France's planned eight underground nuclear tests on Mururoa between this September and May next year. The plan has provoked worldwide condemnation, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, where many of the vessels in the Peace Flotilla are registered.

"The French could demand that these people get back under French law because they had broken French law. My directive states that we are not to hand them back and that we are to seek assistance and guidance from New Zealand," he said last week.

However, he added that he would try to discourage any protesters from boarding Tui by increasing speed or manoeuvring to avoid them. He already has two New Zealand MPs, six journalists and one official from the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department on board.

Commander Alan Peppercorn, the New Zealand Naval attache in London, said the Tui had been "expressly instructed not to make contact with Greenpeace", but said that did not rule out other environmental groups.

Even if protesters do not board the Tui, the presence of the New Zealand Navy vessel could deter the French from pursuing protesters out of the 12 nautical mile exclusion zone if the vessels cluster round it.

There are already 16 other vessels with the Tui, which left New Zealand on 10 August and is expected to stay off Mururoa for two or three weeks, then return to Rarotonga before going back to Mururoa for another two to three weeks.

They include three Greenpeace vessels - the Greenpeace, Rainbow Warrior and Vega - and the Te-au-o-Tonga, a traditional Cook Islands voyaging canoe.