Rust tub set for Mururoa showdown

Suva, Fiji (AP) - Notorious for breaking down and running aground on reefs, a rusty 400-ton ship chugged out of port yesterday on possibly her most hazardous voyage - to protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

The Kaunitoni has lugged coconuts, bananas and other supplies around the South Seas for 20 years. Now, after last-minute repairs, she is joining an anti-nuclear flotilla of about 30 craft converging on Mururoa atoll, where France plans to conduct seven or eight underground blasts beginning next month.

"We hope the French will hear us," said Adi Finau Tabakaucoro, a Fiji senator, who helped charter the Kaunitoni despite questions about its seaworthiness.

As the ship left Fiji waters well-wishers sang a Isa Lei, a folk tune normally sung for people who may not return.

About 40 protesters will join the ship at stopovers on the trip to Mururoa, 650 miles south-east of Tahiti. They include politicians from Germany, Belgium and the European Parliament as well as legislators from South Pacific island states who fear the tests will endanger their ocean environment.

A group of Australian politicians was planning to leave Brisbane yesterday. And business people, lawyers, chefs, doctors, farmers, teachers and students are taking their own yachts from Australia and New Zealand to Polynesia to protest.

Most plan to anchor outside the 12-mile exclusion zone set by French security forces around the blast site. Others are considering whether to sail into the zone, patrolled by the French navy.

This week the Vega, a Greenpeace yacht which has protested off Mururoa many times, reached the 12-mile limit. She will soon be joined by two more of the group's vessels including the Rainbow Warrior II - the successor to the protest ship bombed and sunk by French security agents in Auckland Harbour in New Zealand in 1985.

The Rainbow Warrior II arrived in the Tahitian capital, Papeete, on Wednesday before a series of planned anti-nuclear street demonstrations there.