France faces violent protest of nuclear tests

PAPEETE, Tahiti Slinging chains and beating police shields with metal pipes, demonstrators brawled with police on Papeete's airport runway Wednesday in the first violent protest of France's new nuclear tests.

Two policemen and two protesters were hospitalized, the French High Commissioner's office said.

Russia and France's Western allies, meanwhile, added to international criticism of the decision by President Jacques Chirac to end a 3-year-old moratorium and set off the blast Tuesday beneath a remote South Pacific island.

Protesters chained themselves to French embassies in Finland, Austria, Spain and Denmark. The environmental group Greenpeace said protests were being held across Europe, and in Japan, Argentina and the United States.

Opposition has been especially fierce in Papeete, Tahiti, the French Polynesian capital about 750 miles northwest of the nuclear test site at Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls.

About 1,000 demonstrators all supporters of Polynesia's Independence Party dashed over scrub land to reach the main runway of Papeete's airport and bring flights to a halt Wednesday morning.

The protesters, including some children, sat down, sang songs and held up pro-independence and anti-nuclear signs.

''Peace, freedom, love. Think of our children. French take your bombs and go out for God's sake,'' one sign read.

Ten minutes later, about 200 riot police appeared carrying clubs, shields and tear-gas launchers. They marched down the runway, ordering the protesters to disperse. When they didn't move, police fired tear gas canisters that obscured the area with smoke.

About 30 demonstrators, some of them wearing helmets and swinging pipes and chains, broke through the French cordon and tried to storm aboard an Air Tahiti flight bound for Los Angeles and Paris. They fought with police in riot gear at the foot of the boarding steps but were blocked from boarding the plane. The passengers were evacuated and fled the airport.

One protester was injured when he picked up a tear gas grenade and it exploded in his hand, and another had a head injury, said Dr. Fabrice Jeanette at the emergency ward. Five or six other protesters were also in the ward, and many more people sustained lesser injuries.

The protesters set fires around the airport and threw stones, shattering airport windows and the windshields of parked cars. Plumes of smoke went up from a freight station and a cafe near the airport entrance.

Earlier, truckloads of riot police cruised through Papeete in a show of force after labor unions called a general strike for Wednesday.

''We are very ashamed to be French ashamed to support the French government, ashamed to belong to France,'' said Roti Maker, a resident of Papeete.

In Paris, about 5,000 Greenpeace activists and leftist political party supporters rallied at a symbolic site: the Place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution began. One demonstrator combed her hair in the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud.

Chirac contends up to eight blasts are needed to develop computer simulations that will make further detonations unnecessary. He has promised to sign a global test ban treaty after this series of blasts, due to end in May, is completed.

The test Tuesday took place in a tunnel bored 1,800 to 3,000 feet beneath Mururoa. A videotape released by the French military showed the atoll's lagoon heaving and frothing like a whirlpool as the shock wave lashed the water, sending up white foam and mist.

The Australian Seismological Center estimated the power of Tuesday's blast at the equivalent of about 8,000 tons of TNT, or eight kilotons.

''We are not testing bombs,'' the military commander on Mururoa, Gen. Paul Vericel, said at news conference there Wednesday. ''We are testing nuclear physics.''

Fourteen ships carrying environmental protesters remained at sea around Mururoa, but French naval vessels were trying to head off any further intrusions into the 12-mile exclusion zone around the atoll.

In Seoul, South Korea, 25 environmental activists occupied the French Cultural Center for 20 minutes before police evicted them. Six more climbed the four-story building and hung a French flag defaced by a painted skull.

In Germany, about a dozen protesters chained themselves across a highway near Saarbrucken, halting traffic for several hours.

''It was foolish of the French president,'' said Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. ''I think deep inside, he knows now after all the international reaction he has had that it wasn't especially smart.''

Angered at Chirac's unyielding stance, New Zealand and Chile recalled their ambassadors from Paris, and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru suspended diplomatic relations with France altogether.

The United States said it regretted the French test, and a White House statement urged ''all of the nuclear powers, including France, to refrain from further nuclear tests.''

Russia, which along with the United States and Britain no longer conducts tests, said the test ''deals a serious blow to the agreements on disarmament.''

''France is setting a bad example which shouldn't be followed by anyone,'' said President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev.

Germany reacted far more cautiously to the tests by its top partner in Europe. So did Britain, which maintains a nuclear arsenal but plans no further testing.

Not surprisingly, China which conducted its fourth underground test in 14 months on Aug. 17 also reacted mildly. But participants in an international U.N-sponsored women's forum in Beijing staged protests.

France has set off 205 nuclear blasts in the South Pacific and in Algeria since 1960, when then-President Charles de Gaulle brought the country into the atomic age. France stopped atmospheric testing in 1974.

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