Protest Vessels Ring Test Site, Awaiting Signs of First Blast
PAPEETE, Tahiti (AP) _ Greenpeace protest boats played cat-and-mouse games with the French military Thursday in the waters off the South Pacific island where France is planning underground nuclear tests.
Eight boats in a ``peace flotilla″ organized by the environmental group were anchored just outside the 12-mile exclusion zone around Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia, with another 20 or so expected.
A day earlier, anti-nuclear demonstrators stormed government buildings in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. The demonstrators took security forces by surprise, prompting the police chief to call in riot squads.
The protest remained peaceful, but opposition lawmakers warned of possible confrontations if France carries out the tests, which could begin as soon as Friday.
Greenpeace activists lowered microphones into the waters off Mururoa on Thursday, which they hope will pick up the sound or shock wave of the first test.
France plans to conduct up to eight underground nuclear tests at Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls between Sept. 1 and May. It has not said exactly when the tests would be conducted.
France says it needs to test a new warhead and develop computer simulation that will make further tests unnecessary, and it promises to sign a global test ban treaty by May.
Still, its plans have met with outrage in much of the world, particularly in French Polynesia.
Near the test site, the crew of a traditional Polynesian canoe complained that French helicopters and jet fighters buzzed them at low altitude as they sailed to join the flotilla at Mururoa.
Tua Pittman, the skipper of the 72-foot, double-hulled canoe Te-Au-O-Tonga, said in a radio report that the low-level antics had been ``extremely frightening″ for his crew.
The French navy has 15 vessels and naval commandos protecting the exclusion zone, which Greenpeace is expected to try to breach in an attempt to stop the nuclear tests.
When protesters nosed right up to the edge of the exclusion zone on Thursday, the military dispatched its own ship or chopper to make sure the demonstrators did not stray across the line.
Greenpeace’s flagship protest vessel, the Rainbow Warrior II, left the area Thursday and headed for Tureia Atoll, about 60 miles northwest of the test atoll. Tureia has a small airstrip, but the reason for its change of course was not immediately clear.
In Paris, Greenpeace had planned to form a human chain of 500 people in the heart of the city Friday, but police on Thursday outlawed it as a ``menace to public order.″
French President Jacques Chirac, meanwhile, ordered his ambassadors to ``multiply France’s voice″ around the world.
``Be transparent: Explain, explain again, explain without letup ... it’s in the interests of France,″ Chirac told French envoys attending an annual meeting Thursday at the Elysees Palace.
They have their work cut out for them. Chile on Thursday ordered its ambassador to France to leave Paris as soon as the first nuclear test is conducted.