The respected Paris daily Le Monde and the investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported today that a "third team" of French underwater saboteurs had orders to blow up the Greenpeace environmental group flagship Rainbow Warrior.
The French government has so far acknowledged the presence of two teams of French agents in New Zealand on an "information-gathering" mission at the time the boat was sunk.
France's "Greenpeace Affair" thus took an important twist with allegations that French military leaders have hushed up important details about plans to sabotage the protest ship in the port of Auckland.
Political analysts said that the latest press reports seemed likely to fuel a controversy over who ordered the sinking of the Greenpeace ship July 10. Two French Army officers are awaiting trial in New Zealand on charges of conspiracy and the murder of a Portuguese-born photographer who was killed in the explosion.
The French government reacted to the new allegations by recalling a statement Aug. 27 by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius in which he pledged to make every effort to uncover the truth about the Rainbow Warrior's sinking.
The reports in Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaine, which could not be confirmed independently, contradict each other on some details of the alleged plot. But both accounts agreed on the existence of a third, previously unmentioned team of two French underwater saboteurs which allegedly carried out the attack.
According to the two journals, the agents managed to escape undetected from New Zealand by commercial airplane after the explosion.
Le Monde, which qualified some of its statements by using the conditional tense, said that its information "formally contradicted" the findings of the government's own investigation into the scandal. The government investigator, Bernard Tricot, concluded that neither the French government nor the secret service was involved in the attack.
Three senior military leaders, according to Le Monde, were aware of the operation against Greenpeace: Defense Minister Charles Hernu, armed forces Chief of Staff Gen. Jeannou Lacaze, and Gen. Jean Saulnier, a presidential adviser. The newspaper said that President Francois Mitterrand himself did not know about the operation in advance.
"At this stage, it is impossible to know if the three personalities are directly implicated in ordering the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior or simply involved because of misunderstandings or things left unsaid during discussions on Greenpeace," Le Monde said in a report occupying a third of the front page and one inside page.
Le Monde said that its information came from a variety of sources including the secret service, the police, government officials in sensitive positions and opposition figures. It acknowledged that some of its informants could have a political interest in making the allegations.
The reports in Le Monde and Le Canard left unclear whether the third team of French agents belonged to the secret service or to the French Navy. The account in Le Canard left open the possibility that the orders to sink the Rainbow Warrior had come from a high level in the French military rather than the government.