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Vanguard of Greenpeace protest flotilla sets sail

Campaigners plan to take international MPs to join 50 vessels at Mururoa, where France is to start nuclear tests in September

Environment Correspondent

and agencies

Greenpeace is hoping to charter a small cruise ship to ferry dozens of MPs and journalists from Europe and Australasia out to Mururoa, scene of the French nuclear tests which are due to begin in September.

The environmental group's plan is for the 67-berth Lady of the Pacific to join a flotilla of at least 50 yachts, three other Greenpeace vessels and an unarmed New Zealand government research ship sailing around the atoll in French Polynesia to demonstrate against the tests.

Today the MV Greenpeace, the organisation's most up-to-date ship, is due to set sail from Barcelona in Spain for the South Pacific. She will take about 50 days to reach French Polynesia, where the eight tests are scheduled between September and May.

The Rainbow Warrior II, successor to the ship sunk by the French secret service 10 years ago this month, is now heading for Fiji and is expected to arrive there at the weekend.

She will take on a new captain and crew members and stores before returning to French Polynesia. The damage inflicted just over two weeks ago, when she was rammed by the French Navy and seized by commandos, will be repaired. The ship had entered the 12-mile exclusion zone imposed around Mururoa, the remote islet where France has tested its nuclear weapons for three decades.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace's 38ft yacht Vega is expected to arrive in Tahiti today, having picked up the three veteran activists who were in the vicinity of Mururoa for two weeks.

Greenpeace says the escapade by the organisation'sfounder, the Canadian David McTaggart, New Zealander Henk Haazen and Australian Chris Robinson was a success, because it showed protesters could remain near Mururoa undetected by the French forces.

The anti-nuclear flotilla sailing to Mururoa may be joined by German Social Democratic Party MPs. Until now, only MPs from New Zealand, Australia and the Cook Islands have indicated that they will join.

The German SPD deputy leader, Heidimarie Wieczorek-Ceul, called the New Zealand Labor leader, Helen Clark, late last week to say the protest flotilla idea had interested German parliamentarians.

"The word is that at least 50 yachts are signed up for the flotilla in Australia and New Zealand," a London-based Greenpeace spokeswoman, Desley Mather, said. Most of them will set off on Sunday 6 August - the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

What they will do once they arrive off Mururoa in September has still to be decided. One option is to enter the exclusion zone en masse in an attempt to swamp the French navy.

Chartering the Lady of the Pacific, a modern catamaran, depends on getting her New Zealand owner to lower his price, William Peden, a Greenpeace campaigner, said. If a deal can be struck later this week the 100ft vessel will sail to Tahiti.

The French foreign ministry said President Jacques Chirac's decision to go ahead with the tests, announced last month, was irrevocable, despite the international condemnation.

France says the tests will do no significant environmental damage nor harm human health. It argues that they are needed to improve computer simulation of nuclear tests so that France can catch up with Russia, the United States and Britain before signing up to the test-ban treaty.