Rainbow Warrior crew remember 1985 bombing

10th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Exactly 25 years since French agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, members of the original Greenpeace crew remain marked by the bomb attack which killed a fellow crewman.

The flagship's captain Peter Willcox, chief engineer Davey Edward and deckhand Grace O'Sullivan say the bombing simply made them more determined to defend their cause.

The trio spoke to AFP at a memorial ceremony for Fernando Pereira -- the 35-year-old Portuguese-Dutch crewman and photographer who died on the ship -- in the Polish port of Gdansk where the Rainbow Warrior III is being built.

Shortly before midnight on July 10, 1985, underwater mines blew holes in the hull of the docked Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand.

It was poised to lead a flotilla in a maritime protest against France's Pacific Ocean nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll -- which Paris finally halted in 1996.

"It's always sobering to remember Fernando," said American Willcox, 57, who had commanded the ship since 1981 and remains at the helm of its 1989 replacement, the Rainbow Warrior II.

"Losing a shipmate is the worst thing that can happen to you as a captain."

Trapped in his cabin, Pereira drowned.

The Rainbow Warrior was in New Zealand to refit amid an ongoing anti-nuclear campaign in the Pacific.

Willcox gave his team shore leave, while crew from other boats set to join the flotilla came for a meeting. There were 12 people onboard.

"It was just a relaxing night on the boat. If the bombs had gone off an hour-and-a-half sooner, we would have lost 20 people," he said.

Edward, from Britain, had been ashore for sightseeing and a beer.

"We were quite sure that what was going to come up at Mururoa was going to be pretty challenging. So myself and Fernando took the opportunity to enjoy ourselves," said Edward, also 57.

"We got back on board at around 11:30 pm. We were sitting in the mess, and there was a huge bang. The mess room was above the engine room. We were sat on benches, and literally got lifted off them," he added.

Edward rushed below to check if his engines had sparked the blast.

"The water was gushing in. Then the lights went off," he said.

Pereira's body was recovered by New Zealand navy divers the following day. They also discovered the hull had been blown in.

"There was a sense of absolute horror, thinking someone had done this," said Edward.

O'Sullivan, from Ireland, was onshore.

"It's really hard now. When I think of Fernando, I think of a friend who I spent two years sailing with prior to the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. I just use the term murder," she said.

The operation -- codenamed "Satanic" -- became one of the biggest political and diplomatic scandals of the mandate of France's late president, Francois Mitterrand.

Two French agents posing as Swiss tourists were snared by New Zealand police, but a handful of others suspected of involvement were never caught.

France initially denied responsibility, but under mounting pressure finally acknowledged its involvement in September 1985.

That November the agents -- Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart -- pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to 10 years in jail.

"They said they didn't try to kill anybody, but they didn't try not to kill anybody either," Willcox claimed.

He, O'Sullivan and Edward said they feel sadness, not hate.

France used a trade boycott against New Zealand to push it into accepting a July 1986 UN-brokered settlement which saw the agents transferred to what was meant to be three years of exile on an atoll in French Polynesia.

By 1988 both were back in France, intensifying New Zealand's bitterness.

The Rainbow Warrior affair was more than a public relations disaster for Paris, however. It also spurred the environmentalists.

"It didn't slow us down. If anything, we felt that if we have these powerful men so scared and so frightened, we must be doing something right. It was an encouragement to continue on with what we did," said Willcox.

O'Sullivan, now 47, agreed.

"It's totally ironic," she said. "The way they went about it actually hit them straight back in the face."

"Greenpeace has gone from strength to strength," she added.

© 2010 AFP

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