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Countdown to Murder in the South Pacific

In the mid-‘80s, the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, was interfering in nuclear tests in French Polynesia. France’s solution was simple: terrorism, murder and blackmail.

In 1985, the world learned that a team of “rogue agents” from France’s secret service, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, General Directorate for External Security) had sunk a civilian ship in a friendly port. As the affair unravelled, it was revealed not only that the operation was personally authorised by President Mitterand but that he would go to any lengths, including the direct blackmail of an allied government to cover up the affair.

15 May 1985: Admiral Charles Lacoste, head of the DGSE meets French President Françcois Mitterand for an intelligence briefing. They discuss possible Greenpeace interference in upcoming nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll. "I asked the president if he would authorise me to conduct the project of neutralisation that I had studied at the request of [Defence Minister Charles] Hernu. He gave me his consent while emphasising the importance he placed on the nuclear tests.” 

23 April 1985: Christine Huguette Cabon, aged 33, a lieutenant in the French Army and working for the DGSE, arrives in Auckland, New Zealand, under the name of Frederique Bonlieu, to infiltrate the Greenpeace Organisation and gather data on harbouring arrangements for a planned visit of the Rainbow Warrior. 

22 June: Major Alain Mafart, aged 34, (alias Alain Turenge of Switzerland) and Captain Dominique Prieur, aged 36 (alias Sophie Turenge, also of Switzerland) arrives in Auckland Airport from Paris via Honolulu. Both are French Army, Mafart is a graduate of the Combat Frogman School at Asporetto, Corsica. 

29 June: The yacht Ouvea arrives from New Caledonia and enters Whangarei Harbour, 130 miles north of Auckland. Its crew include three French navy frogmen and a doctor, all DGSE operatives.

07 July: Alain Tonel, aged 33, and Jaques Camurier, aged 35, arrived at Auckland Airport. Claiming to be physical training instructors at a girls school in Papeete, they are the DGSE agents who will plant the charges on the ship. 

07 July: The Rainbow Warrior arrives in Auckland Harbour and ties up at the Marsden Wharf. At 23:50, a bomb blast rips open the Rainbow Warrior, moored at Marsden Wharf. A photographer, Fernando Pereira, aged 36, the father of two young children, tries to retrieve his equipment. A second bomb explodes. As the Rainbow Warrior sinks, Pereira drowns. 

12 July: "In no way was France involved" says Charles Montan, political counsellor at the French Embassy in Wellington. "The French Government does not deal with its opponents in such ways.” As Montan is talking, the police swoop on a French-speaking couple returning a hired campervan. Their Swiss passports identify them as Sophie and Alain Turenge. Britain’s MI6 identifies them as French spies Mafart and Prieur.

15 July: A squad of Auckland detectives fly to Norfolk Island to interview the crew of the Ouvea. The police lack evidence to hold the crew, and the Ouvea sails away purportedly for Noumea. The yacht never arrives and is presumed to have been scuttled at sea. 

09 August: President Mitterrand of France condemns the Rainbow Warrior bombing as a "criminal attack" and promises stern punishment if allegations that French agents were involved prove to be true. In a letter to New Zealand Prime Minister, David Lange, Mr Mitterand writes: "I intend that this affair be treated with the greatest severity and that your country be able to count on Frances full cooperation”. With great fanfare, Counsellor of State, Bernard Tricot is appointed to enquire into the allegations.

26 August: The released Tricot Report says there is no evidence that the French Government ordered the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. The report says the five agents were authorised to “observe” Greenpeace and to consider ways to counter its activities but not to carry out any actions. Tricot declares the two agents held in Auckland are “innocent”. The report makes him an international laughingstock. Mr Tricot defends himself to reporters: “I have not excluded the possibility I was deceived.” French prosecutors in Paris says the three Ouvea crew members will not be extradited to New Zealand. 

28 August: The French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, says: "Our condemnation is not, as has sometimes been rumoured, a condemnation against the poor execution of a questionable project. It is an absolute condemnation against a criminal act. The guilty, whoever they be, have to pay for this crime.” Fabius orders a fresh investigation into the French links with the bombing. 

21 Sept: The French Defence Minister, Charles Hernu, resigns and DGSE head, Admiral Pierre Lacoste, is sacked after refusing to answer questions about the affair. 

23 Sept: Fabius calls an urgent press conference and announces: "Agents of the DGSE sank the boat. They acted on orders”.

04 Nov: As their trial begins, Mafart and Prieur change their pleas and admit lesser charges of manslaughter and wilful damage. They are sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in New Zealand. Paris newspapers immediately call for an early extradition of the pair. In passing the sentence, the Chief Justice, Sir Ronald Davidson, says: "People who come to this country and commit terrorist activities cannot expect to have a short holiday at the expense of our Government and return home heroes." 

30 Jan: 1986: Talks between the French and New Zealand Governments for compensation for the bombing reach a stalemate as the French Government presses for the return of the agents. 

21 Feb: France bans New Zealand's $8.5 million lamb exports. Further products New Zealand products are banned from France including fish, canned kiwifruit, urea and lamb. 

17 June: United Nations Secretary-General, Xavier Perez de Cuellar, agrees to mediate between the French Government and New Zealand. 

July 1986: A year later, de Cuellar rules France must pay the New Zealand Government $13 million in compensation but Prieur and Mafart are to be transferred from New Zealand and spend three years confined to the island of Hao in French Polynesia. Joel Prieur, Dominique’s husband is made Head of Security at Hao Atoll. 

14 Dec 87: Mafart is repatriated to France due to a mysterious stomach ailment, which can not be treated on Hao. He is immediately appointed to the College of War (L’Ecole de Guerre) for a two year course before taking on a staff position.

06 May 1988: Dominique and Joel Prieur are repatriated to France. Dominique’s father is reportedly suffering from terminal cancer. 

26 Nov 1991: Swiss authorities arrest Gerald Andries, one of the Ouvea's crew in Basle, Switzerland, on the warrant issued in 1985, and advise the New Zealand Police. He is to be held while New Zealand Police assemble a case for extradition. 

05 Dec 1991: Pressure is again applied from France, aimed at crippling the New Zealand exports. The French claim the settlement covered all the agents not just Mafart and Prieur. They aim to stop the attempt to extradite Gerald Andries. 

18 Dec: Eighty-five affidavits had been sworn to the New Zealand police and witnesses are ready to testify. Under intense political pressure, the New Zealand Government drops the attempt to extradite Gerald Andries for trial in Auckland. He, like the rest of the thirteen-strong murder team, go free.

10 July 2005: Le Monde newspaper in France publishes extracts of DGSE reports written in 1986 that show former President Mitterand (now dead) authorised the Rainbow Warrior bombing to prevent the vessel intervening in France’s scheduled nuclear testing. The same day, a commemoration is held on the coast north of Auckland where the Rainbow Warrior has been placed to form an artificial reef. The ship's skipper at the time of the bombing, Pete Willcox, dives 25 metres to place a memorial sculpture on the bridge while above Pereira's daughter Marelle casts flowers into the water.


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