'SAS' Briton feared being shot on atoll

Pacific nuclear tests: Greenpeace activists recall ordeal after they were caught by French forces paratroopers

A Greenpeace activist captured by French paratroops on Mururoa atoll said yesterday he feared he was going to be shot when he was trussed up, pistol-whipped and had a gun held to his head.

''At that stage I stopped pretending I couldn't speak French,'' said Matthew Whitting, a former French foreign legionnaire who had served on the islet during previous nuclear tests. ''I began pleading for my life.''

Mr Whitting and Alan Baker told a press conference in London how they were held by the Gendarmerie and the French Foreign Legion for a week in Mururoa and Tahiti before being deported. They had sailed 30 miles to the atoll in an inflatable craft, towing two kayaks, having been dropped by the Greenpeace-chartered yacht La Ribaude, which has since been captured by the French authorities after sailing into the exclusion zone.

They arrived on 3 September, two days before the first underground nuclear explosion in France's latest series of tests. After resting in an uninhabited part of the atoll, Mr Baker paddled his kayak across the lagoon at night while Mr Whitting walked and swam towards the occupied zone.

He said he placed several protest stickers on buildings and a telephone box outside the police station before being seized by paratroopers. The pistol-whipping left him with a cut on his elbow and a fractured knee cap. He said the soldiers talked about killing him.

''I completely believed I was going to die,'' said Mr Whitting, who has served a jail sentence in Britain for armed robbery. ''I began speaking the best French of my life, and they calmed down.''

He was handed over to gendarmes and received medical treatment. Mr Baker, a bricklayer, gave himself up. Both were lying in separate cells when the bomb exploded.

''It was my first action with Greenpeace and it won't be my last,'' said Mr Whitting, who had the SAS's "Who Dares Wins" motto and shield tattooed on his shoulder during his four years with the French Foreign Legion: ''I did it to bury part of my past.''

Back in French Polynesia, independence leaders have lodged a complaint with Amnesty International over France's treatment of Polynesian trade union officials charged with inciting riots in Tahiti last week. The Tavini Huiraatira, or Polynesian Liberation Front, led by Oscar Temaru, has charged the French administration with abusing the human rights of 15 leading officials from Atia Mua, a large blue collar union, arrested on Saturday. Eight are being held while the others have been released pending a court hearing.

Nelson Ortas, Mayor of Faa'a, an industrial district of Papeete, said police forced the trade unionists to kneel for two hours in handcuffs, their faces touching the car-park tarmac of the Papeete police centre. He said that the officials had heard screaming from another section of the prison, and had seen policemen carrying electric-shock devices.

Tahiti Diary, page 15

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