At sea and on land, protesters across the South Pacific joined a growing global chorus Saturday to demand that France halt plans to conduct nuclear tests on two remote atolls.
Among those arrested aboard a Greenpeace protest ship near the Mururoa Atoll test site were the delegate to Congress from American Samoa and a Tahitian independence leader.
Japan’s finance minister, arriving with 23 other Japanese lawmakers, held out hope that France would cancel the tests.
“It is not too late for President (Jacques) Chirac to turn back from the nuclear testing. Nuclear weapons are a relic from a previous era,” said Finance Minister Masayoshi Takemura.
But France was widely expected to set off an underground nuclear blast soon, ending a 3-year-old moratorium. French authorities have said only that the eight or nine explosions will occur between September and May.
The tests are be held on Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls, 750 miles southeast of Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, which has become the focal point of the anti-nuclear movement since France announced the tests.
Polls show more than 60 percent of the French public oppose the tests. Chirac contends they are needed to develop technology to simulate future tests by computer. He says he will sign a global test ban treaty after the tests, a promise that has done little to stop the outcry.
Up to 15,000 demonstrators were expected to protest Saturday, as were about 100 legislators from Japan, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It was to be held in a soccer stadium.
Harry Wood, an Australian lawmaker, said the lawmakers hoped to highlight “the amount of opposition right throughout the Pacific and other countries.”
Hundreds of Tahitian independence activists blocked two highways leading into Papeete Friday evening. A motorcyclist was injured when he tried to run the roadblock. One of the roadblocks remained in place Saturday, snarling traffic in Papeete.
The protesters were angered by the detention of independence leader Oscar Temaru, who was aboard a Greenpeace ship when French commandos stormed it Friday just inside the territorial waters of Mururoa. The commandos also seized another ship, the MV Greenpeace, just outside the 12-mile limit.
Temaru and 22 others were flown in handcuffs to Papeete, where they were released. Greenpeace spokesman Tom Clements in Washington said “the entire flight of 23 was in handcuffs, and not treated too well.”
French military officials said some of those detained would be prosecuted for entering Mururoa’s territorial waters.
Greenpeace claimed the commandos used sledgehammers to smash radio and satellite equipment on board the Rainbow Warrior II and severed the ship’s radio cables. Greenpeace released a videotape of the raid showing the commandos breaking into the control room with blowtorches.
A French military spokesman in Paris declined Saturday to comment on the Greenpeace charges.
Penelope Komites, a Greenpeace spokeswoman in Paris, said the environmental organization might sue the French government for piracy because it seized the MV Greenpeace in international waters. But the French said the ship carried a helicopter that flew over the test site to film military installations.
“International law was manifestly broken,” Francois Baroin, a government spokesman, told France-Info radio in Paris.
The French navy also intercepted nine Greenpeace inflatable rafts, some of which made it into a lagoon of Mururoa.
A Greenpeace statement from Washington said five Americans - including American Samoa’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, Eni Faleomavaega - were on the Rainbow Warrior II.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Phyllis Young, said the French government confirmed Faleomavaega was taken to Tahiti and freed. She said she was unaware of any other Americans on board.
Another Greenpeace ship, the Manutea, left San Francisco on Aug. 9 with a group of American peace activists and was expected to join a flotilla of ships near the test site Saturday.