Tahiti protest boosts Greenpeace campaign

NICHOLAS SCHOON

Thousands of demonstrators opposing French nuclear weapon tests blocked roads on the island of Tahiti yesterday as the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II arrived at the French Pacific island's capital, Papeete.

Next week the successor to the ship bombed by the French secret service in 1985 sails for the Mururoa atoll test site - and confrontation with the French Navy.

But yesterday the environmental group was somewhat divided over how to respond to a French offer to fly Greenpeace representatives to inspect the site where eight nuclear weapons will be exploded underground from September through to May.

''It's a pretty good propaganda ploy, but there's no way the offer will be taken up by Greenpeace,'' said David Enever, captain of the Rainbow Warrior II, speaking to the Independent by satellite telephone.

But Penelope Komites, director of Greenpeace France, was reported to have said: "We accept this visit if it is not a gimmick and if we can carry out a genuine study on the spot." The French organisation of the world-wide environmental group says it does not want a quick visit, but a chance to evaluate the damage caused by a total of 187 French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Last month President Chirac ended a three-year moratorium on tests.

The port authorities on Tahiti, a French Overseas Territory, had wanted the Rainbow Warrior to dock in an industrial port away from the capital. But they relented and the converted 300ft trawler was allowed to anchor in the middle of the main harbour.

Greenpeace put the number of demonstrators at 15,000, an eighth of the island's population, while police said the figure was around 6,000. ''It was a pretty good welcome from the populace,'' said Captain Enever, who has been skippering Greenpeace ships for seven years and comes from Essex.

The Rainbow Warrior II's crew plan to set sail on Monday for the Mururoa and Fangatoufa atolls, more than 600 miles away, taking a dissident Catholic bishop from France, Jacques Gaillot, and Mr Temaru with them. Captain Enever would not say if the ship would sail into the 12-mile exclusion zone around the test sites. ''We'll play that off the cuff,'' he said.

But the intention is for the ship to be nearby on 10 July, exactly a decade after a limpet mine sank the first Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour, killing a photographer. One of the crew is American Steve Sawyer, a former Greenpeace International executive director whose birthday party was in progress on the ship when the bomb exploded.

Yesterday's peaceful protest was organised by a range of groups and a leading pro-independence opposition party.

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