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Having arrived in New Zealand from Vanuatu three days earlier, the “Rainbow Warrior” lay peacefully moored at Auckland’s Marsden Wharf.

Greenpeace campaigners were preparing the former North Sea fishing trawler for the environmental group’s biggest-ever protest voyage to Moruroa Atoll, the site of French nuclear bomb testing. Unknown to them, two French secret agents had set off in an inflatable dinghy from the other side of the harbour, some 2 kilometers away. When they arrived, they both swam underwater with bombs which they attached to the propeller shaft, and adjacent to the engine room.

Both bombs were timed to explode three hours after they were set, at 11.50 pm. The first blast ripped a massive hole in the engine room and the force of the explosion was so powerful that a freighter on the other side of Marsden Wharf was thrown five metres sideways. The Rainbow Warrior rapidly sank until the keel touched the harbour floor, the shocked crew scrambled on to the wharf but Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira dashed down a narrow stairway to one of the stern cabins to rescue his expensive cameras. The second explosion probably stunned him and he drowned with his camera straps tangled around his legs.

A murder enquiry began and a number of French agents were tracked and arrested. The revelations of French involvement caused a political scandal and the French minister of defence Charles Hernu resigned. The captured French agents were imprisoned, but later transferred to French custody and subsequently released. After facing international pressure France agreed to pay compensation to Greenpeace, and later admissions from the former head of the DGSE revealed that three teams had been involved in the bombings.

On the twentieth anniversary of the sinking, it was revealed that the French president François Mitterrand had personally authorised the bombing.

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