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KGB Seizes Greenpeace Ship Near Nuclear Site : Soviet Union: Warning shots are fired before vessel is boarded. Activists fear resumption of testing on island.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Soviet coast guard Monday fired warning shots at a Greenpeace ship carrying anti-nuclear activists who were protesting plans to resume the testing of nuclear weapons in the Arctic, the official Tass news agency reported.

The coast guard vessel, an icebreaker operated by the KGB, the Soviet security and intelligence agency, then put armed sailors aboard the MV Greenpeace to escort it out of the Barents Sea, Tass said.

The KGB said it seized the ship “for deliberate violation of the state borders of the Soviet Union, failure to obey border authorities and landing people at prohibited places.”

“In order to detain the Greenpeace ship, the border guards had to fire warning shots,” a KGB spokesman said. “The ship will soon be escorted to the Kola Gulf, where an inquiry will take place.”

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The ship, operated by the Greenpeace environmental movement, had sailed into Soviet waters to protest the possible resumption of nuclear testing at Novaya Zemlya, two islands in the Barents Sea high in the Arctic. Four of the 38 activists had gone ashore in inflatable rubber boats in the pre-dawn darkness before the coast guard intervened.

“We are outraged that the Soviet authorities have boarded our ship,” Rebecca Johnson, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, said in London. “In attacking Greenpeace and defending nuclear testing, the Soviet military is defying the wishes of the Soviet people. Thousands of Soviet citizens came aboard the ship in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk to give us support. They too want nuclear testing to stop.”

Seven Soviet participants in the Barents Sea protest, including a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the national parliament, and two deputies in regional councils, denounced the use of the land for nuclear tests as a violation of the rights of the native Nenets people, who were moved from the region decades ago.

“We are there to help the Soviet people in their campaign against nuclear testing,” Johnson said. “But this is really a struggle that must be waged in the United States above all countries.

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“If the United States would stop its nuclear weapons testing, the Soviet Union would stop immediately,” she continued. “The Soviets have made this pledge, and they have already had a moratorium for 19 months while the Americans continued to explode bomb after bomb. That nuclear testing continues should shame the United States.”

The Bush Administration, like its predecessors, maintains that it must continue testing nuclear weapons to verify their reliability and to improve the multiple warheads on missiles. The Soviet Union continues to urge a total test ban, but it says that as long as the United States tests to improve its nuclear arsenal, it must also.

In Moscow today, the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislature, is expected to ratify two treaties the Soviet Union signed with the United States in the early 1970s restricting the size of underground nuclear tests--those in the atmosphere have been banned since 1963--and controlling peaceful nuclear explosions.

Working out a verification program required years of negotiation, and those talks were effectively interrupted with the deterioration of Soviet-American relations in the early 1980s.

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Steven Shallhorn, the voyage coordinator, said before the MV Greenpeace was seized that Greenpeace believed the Soviet Union was preparing a nuclear test on Novaya Zemlya soon.

“Our information is that they now have a warhead underground,” he said. “We are not sure when they are planning to test it, but we are sure they are not going to do it as long as we are here.”

Shallhorn told Greenpeace officials in London that the Soviet coast guard ordered the ship to leave the area several times and then fired warning shots. Even after the vessel was boarded, Shallhorn and a radio operator continued broadcasting from it until, he said, armed Soviet sailors forced open the door to the radio room and broke the connection.

The whereabouts of the four activists who landed on Novaya Zemlya early Monday and were walking toward the test site was not known. They were identified by Greenpeace as Ted Wood of the United States, Jorn Haye of Germany, Bjorn Oken of Norway and Jeanne Ni Ghormain of Ireland.

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Greenpeace said its protest was part of the organization’s “Let’s Disarm the Sea” campaign, in which its vessels also will go into waters near U.S. and French weapons test sites.

The MV Greenpeace, a 190-foot converted salvage tug, was involved in a skirmish with the U.S. Navy last December and was rammed while trying to disrupt the launch of a Trident 2 missile by a submarine off the Florida coast.

Flying the Dutch flag, the Greenpeace ship carries activists from the United States, Britain, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Austria and the Netherlands as well as the Soviet Union.

Last month, the Soviet coast guard briefly detained a Norwegian research vessel while it was taking water samples in the same area. Norway is about 370 miles from Novaya Zemlya.

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BACKGROUND

Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic archipelago of two large islands and numerous smaller ones, was a primary test site for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons from 1958 to 1963. Environmentalists say it was used intermittently until 1988. Testing is likely to resume, Greenpeace believes, because of the suspension of tests at the main Soviet test site, Semipalatinsk in the republic of Kazakhstan, following widespread protests there.


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