This article was first published on Café Pacific
ANALYSIS By David Robie
THE unmasked French bomber who sank the Rainbow Warrior 30 years ago had some revealing comments during his interviews with the investigative website Mediapart and TVNZ’s Sunday programme, none more telling than “the first bomb was too powerful, it should have ended as a Watergate” for French President François Mitterrand”.
Mitterrand stayed in office for 14 years – a decade after the bombing and before he finally stepped down when his second presidential term ended in May 1995, the year that nuclear tests ended.
The bomber, retired colonel Jean-Luc Kister, added that had Operation Satanique involved the United States, “more heads would have rolled”.
But while the “innocent death” of Portuguese-born Dutch photographer Fernando Pereira has clearly played on his conscience for all these years, Kister’s sincere apology wasn’t without a hint of trying to rewrite history.
The claim that the secret sabotage operation never meant to kill anybody is unconvincing for anybody on board the Rainbow Warrior on that tragic night of 10 July 1985 when New Zealand lost its political innocence.
Kister told Mediapart’s editor Edwy Plenel: “Thirty years after the event, now that emotions have subsided and also with the distance I now have from my professional life, I thought it was the right time for me to express both my deepest regret and my apologies.”
His apology was to the Pereira family, Greenpeace and the “people of New Zealand”.
Plenel broke the expose of the “third team” bombers for Le Monde in September 1985 and his recent book La troisième équipe comprehensively tells the story.
From on board Rainbow Warrior III, where Pete Willcox – who was skipper of the bombed ship – is currently captain on a tuna fisheries campaign in the Pacific, the message was to accept the apology as a sincere one.
“But Mr Kister must now stand as an admitted murderer, and there can be no quibbling on this. This includes [the late] President François Mitterrand and the rest of the team that both planned and executed the crime.”
Willcox says he will never forget how this event tore a hole in the life of the Pereira family in the Netherlands. His statement to Pacific Media Watch:
Mr Kister wants us to believe that they were incompetent when they planted the bombs on the Rainbow Warrior, and that they never meant to kill anyone. I believe they were indifferent, not incompetent.
What did they think would happen? They blew a 2 x 2.5 metre hole in the hull below the waterline. The boat sank in about 45 seconds.
About one minute later, the second bomb that killed Fernando went off. This was a highly trained military team. Could they really have been that bad at their job? They could have used, and I am guessing here, one quarter of the explosives, and sunk the boat, giving us time to get off.
There is no doubt in my mind that had the bombs gone off 30 minutes sooner, we would have lost the dozen or so persons who were left from the meeting of the Peace Fleet crews in the cargo hold. They would have never have had time to get off.
While Mr Kister has apologised last night, the government of France never has. Not to Greenpeace, not to the Pereira family. We are done asking. It up is to them.
Among the comments from Kister were revelations around other harebrained options – thankfully all rejected for the various risks involved – the French secret service were considering, such as:
• Targeting the Rainbow Warrior in Port Vila, Vanuatu, where the vessel visited immediately before arriving in New Zealand. (In fact, such was the support of the founding Vanuatu Prime Minister Walter Lini, that his government sent an “anti-nuclear” envoy on board, Charles Rara, who was on a diplomatic passport. He shared Pereira’s cabin. Rara later said before he died prematurely from cancer he had been unfairly treated as a “suspect” by the NZ police).
• Sabotaging the ship’s water supply with “bacteria”.
Kister also claimed that the DGSE thinking at the time – at the height of the Cold War – as a pretext for the sabotage was that Greenpeace had been “infiltrated” by the Soviet Union’s KGB.
As a journalist on board the Rainbow Warrior for more than 10 weeks on the last voyage, I find such a claim that an state intelligence organisation could have seriously flirted with such a notion as unbelievable.
No. Clearly the bombing of the ship was to protect the French nuclear arsenal and its continued and undisputed control of Moruroa Atoll in Polynesia as a testing ground for the French nuclear weapons.
In the TVNZ Sunday programme and other New Zealand media reports it is not made clear that in spite of France ending nuclear tests by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1996, it still ranks as the world’s third major nuclear power.
According to monitoring by the Arms Control Association, France currently has the world’s third-largest nuclear warheads stockpile – 300 (admittedly far behind Russia, which has 7700 and the US with 7200). Most of the French nuckear warheads are designed for delivery by the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
France currently operates four Triomphant class nuclear submarines.
The other nuclear warheads are designed for delivery by missiles (ASMP) arming the Mirage 2000N, Super Étendard and Rafale aircraft.
Also, France is the world’s third-largest conventional arms supplier. Between 2007 and 2011, France made nearly $11 billion in arms trade agreements with the developing world.
Jean-Luc Kister’s apology is a frank and candid one trying to come to terms with Fernando Pereira’s death being on his conscience.
His apology is welcome even three decades later – as he says, it is never too late to apologise.
However, history can’t be rewritten. This was a blatant act of outright terrorism, not just state-sponsored terrorism, by France against a friendly nation and a peaceful environmental organisation, Greenpeace, committed under orders.
All the highest level perpetrators who gave the orders – right up to the president’s office in Paris – did this callously and with impunity.
I don’t believe there was the slightest concern about the possible casualties and it was a miracle more people didn’t die on board that night.
This terrible crime ranked with some French colonial atrocities happening in New Caledonia at the same time and will always be remembered painfully in the South Pacific.