A French secret service diver who took part in the operation to sink Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior 30 years ago has spoken publicly for the first time to apologise for his actions.
Jean-Luc Kister, who attached a mine to the ship’s hull, says the guilt of the bombing, which killed a photographer, still weighs heavily on his mind.
“We are not assassins and we have a conscience,” the former agent told investigative website Mediapart. “I have the weight of an innocent man’s death on my conscience … It’s time, I believe, for me to express my profound regret and my apologies,” Kister said.
French inquiry into bombing of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior: from the archive, 24 September 1985
He said he wanted to apologise to the family of the dead man, Fernando Pereira, “especially his daughter Marelle … for what I call an accidental death but what they consider an assassination”, to the Greenpeace crew aboard the ship and the people of New Zealand where the Rainbow Warrior was sunk.
Kister was one of two divers serving with the French intelligence service, the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE), who attached limpet mines to the hull of the vessel moored in Auckland in 1985.
The Rainbow Warrior was heading for the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific in French Polynesia where France was planning a series of nuclear tests.
French agents posing as Swiss tourists had earlier visited the ship, which was open to the public, to gather information for the operation.
The first mine exploded at 11.38pm when many of the crew were asleep, and blew a large hole in the ship’s hull.
Pereira, who had returned to his cabin to retrieve his cameras was below deck when a second bomb exploded. The Portuguese-born photographer, 35, was trapped in his cabin and drowned.
Paris initially denied any involvement in the sinking, codenamed Operation Satanique, and described it as a “terrorist attack”. Documents released in 2005 and published in the Guardian, showed that France tried to blame British intelligence for the sinking in a campaign of “misinformation and smears”. The French government’s responsibility, however, was quickly established and the incident became a political fiasco.
Afterwards Steve Sawyer, worldwide director of Greenpeace, said French claims that the bombs were not intended to kill anyone were “total rubbish”.
“We were very lucky that a lot more people weren’t killed,” Sawyer told Democracy Now, earlier this year.
Peter Willcox, captain of the Rainbow Warrior, added: “The bombs were so powerful that it was just a miracle we didn’t lose more people. The first bomb put a six- by seven-foot hole in the engine room. The second bomb was placed on the propeller shaft.”
In 1987, under international pressure, France paid $8.2m damages to Greenpeace, which helped finance another ship. It also paid an undisclosed sum to the Pereira family. It halted its nuclear testing in the South Pacific in 1996.
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On the Greenpeace website, the organisation states states that the two French agents who posed as tourists pleaded guilty to charges of manslaughter and wilful damage and were sentenced to 10 and 7 years, but were released within two. Of the other intelligence operatives it says “most of those involved in what happened that night in an Auckland harbour have simply disappeared”.
In an interview with Mediapart’s founder, French journalist Edwy Plenel, Kister said he planted the explosives with a fellow agent Jean Camas. The pair were part of a team of 12 agents involved in the operation that was approved by France’s political leaders.
“Thirty years after these events, now that emotions are calmer and with the distance I now have from my professional life, I believe it’s time for me to express both my profound regret and my apologies,” Kister said.
“We aren’t cold-blooded killers, my conscience tells me to apologise and explain,” he added.
Kister claims politicians in Paris turned down other suggestions for dealing with the Greenpeace protest.
“There was a willingness at a high level to say ‘non, non, this has to stop for good, we have to have a much more radical measure. You have to sink it’. And you know, it’s simple. To sink a boat you have to make a hole in it, and that brings risks,” Kister said.
Kister also gave an interview with New Zealand television TVNZ in which he described the operation as “like using boxing gloves to crush a mosquito”.
“It was a disproportionate operation, but we had to obey the order, we were soldiers,” added Col Kister who was a captain at the time. He said it was “an unfair clandestine operation conducted in an allied, friendly and peaceful country” adding that the mission was a “big, big failure”. He insisted the team’s goal was not to kill anyone, and accused French politicans of “high treason” for having leaked his name and role in the operation after the sinking.
At the time, the only official heads to roll were defence minister Charles Hernu, who was forced to resign, and Adm Pierre Lacoste, head of the DGSE at the time, who was demoted.
Jean-François Julliard, director general of Greenpeace France, told AFP that Pereira was “an innocent man sacrificed in the name of absurd reasoning of state … the attack was a crime and not an accident”.
In a statement in French, Greenpeace said Kister, awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1994 and a UN military adviser, was a “hardened officer” who had conceded that “Greenpeace activities didn’t justify such a heavy intervention”.
It called on Paris to name a street after the late photographer Pereira.
“Col Jean-Luc Kister’s apologies will not bring back Fernando, but they prove, once more, that our comrade was an innocent who was sacrificed in the name of state reasoning that even one of the state’s own servants has questioned. That’s why, we would like to insist that French town halls, and particularly that of Paris, the capital of France’s major political decisions, that Fernando’s memory is properly and fully honoured, as it should be, with a road or a square named after him,” Greenpeace stated.
Plenel said the very last question in the mystery was how much the then French president, socialist François Mitterrand knew. He was aware the operation was to take place, but “at what point did he know the operation would be so violent?” Plenel asked.
In 2005, Le Monde released a 1986 report from Lacoste claiming he had “personally obtained approval to sink the ship” from Mitterrand.
The French secret-service agent who led an attack on a Greenpeace ship that killed photographer Fernando Pereira 30 years ago has apologized publicly for the first time.
Speaking to the New Zealand station TVNZ on Sunday, Jean-Luc Kister said now was the right time to apologize to Pereira and his family for what he said was an “accident.”
“Now that emotions have calmed, and also with the hindsight I have regarding my professional life, I thought that this was a chance for me to express both my deepest regrets and my apologies,” Kister told TVNZ.
On July 10, 1985, Greenpeace activists on board the Rainbow Warrior, which was moored in Auckland, were preparing to sail to French Polynesia to protest against French nuclear testing on Mururoa atoll.
In what the BBC called one of the most notorious acts of state sabotage, Kister and his 12-man team, who were working for the French spy agency DGSE, planted two mines on the vessel. The explosions sank the Rainbow Warrior and killed Portuguese photographer Pereira.
Kister said that it was not his team’s intention to kill anybody in the attack. “I have the blood of an innocent man on my conscience, and that weighs on me,” he told French investigative site Mediapart.
Kister said the mission, which was ordered by then French Defense Minister Charles Hernu was “disproportionate” and “an unfair clandestine operation conducted in an allied, friendly and peaceful country.”
But, he pointed out, “We had to obey orders, we were soldiers.”
Greenpeace said in a statement that the apology “will not bring Fernando back but proves once again that our colleague was sacrificed in the name of a state interest that even one of the state’s servants is calling into question.”
Two other agents who took part, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, were arrested in New Zealand two days after the attack and sentenced to 10 years in jail for manslaughter. They were transferred to French Polynesia as part of a settlement and released two years later.
France paid $8.2 million in damages to Greenpeace and in 1996 stopped the nuclear testing that the activist group protested.