South Pacific waiting for the big blast

On the island of Tahiti yesterday, Polynesians, French gendarmes and international tourists crowding the streets and bars of the little town of Papeete were united in asking the same question: when will the bomb go off?

That is the question occupying everyone's minds, as the French finalise preparations for the resumption of nuclear testing. The decision by President Jacques Chirac to order eight nuclear tests (now possibly reduced to seven) in French Polynesia between September and May has ignited opposition throughout the Pacific, but now that the moment is looming after more than two months of noisy demonstrations and boycotts, there is nothing left to do but guess and sift through the rumours.

Three different versions of when the momentous first test will take place are circulating. Version one says it will be tomorrow, the last day of August. Because Polynesia is some 11 hours behind Europe, this argument holds that the test must happen then because to leave it any later would mean breaking into the weekend at military headquarters in France. Versions two and three maintain that it will be on Friday, in order to jump ahead of a big anti-nuclear demonstration planned in Papeete on Saturday. That demonstration began yesterday, as villagers and rural Polynesians joined a five-day march around Tahiti.

Whatever happens will take place about 620 miles south of here at the test sites of Mururoa and Fangataufa, two of the most remote atolls in French Polynesia, surrounded by tight French military security. An international protest fleet of about 25 vessels was sailing towards the sites yesterday hoping to disrupt the tests by breaching the 12-mile military zone around Mururoa.

From Mururoa, General Paul Vericel, the commander of the French nuclear testing sites in the South Pacific, yesterday ended any last-minute hopes that France might call off the tests when he said that final preparations were under way. He nominated 1 September as the start of the test programme, but would not say when the first or later tests would happen. The commander said the tests would go ahead regardless of whether protest vessels were in the vicinity and he hoped their occupants would not do anything to put themselves at risk.

Strategists on Rainbow Warrior 11 and Greenpeace, two of the three Greenpeace vessels in the flotilla, yesterday shuttled between their ships at sea in rubber dinghies to plan their moves as they approach Mururoa. A French navy helicopter flew over, blocking attempts to fly a Greenpeace aircraft to the test area. Triptych, one of 14 New Zealand vessels, radioed that it was 80 miles from Mururoa and expected to reach the 12-mile zone at dawn yesterday, Polynesian time. Tucker Thompson, another New Zealand ship, said it was three days out from Mururoa.

The Wellington Government has sent HMNZS Tui, a naval research ship, to support the New Zealand sailors. But Tony Atkinson, the co-ordinator of the New Zealand flotilla, yesterday criticised the role of the Tui to warn other ships entering French territorial waters. "The notion of the Tui assisting us by warning us is quite ludicrous," he said. "This does not seem the right time for niceties with the French navy. They have declared atomic warfare on the Pacific, bombed and sunk and killed people who wish for peace."

Gordon Bilney, Australia's Minister for Pacific Island Affairs, who will lead an Australian parliamentary delegation to France and seven other European countries next week to lobby against further French testing, said in Sydney yesterday: "What France is doing, in effect, is creating a large underground nuclear waste disposal site in our region far from metropolitan France. Whatever the consequences of this will be, it is the people of the Pacific, not the people of metropolitan France, who will have to live with them."