PARIS — Premier Laurent Fabius, contradicting previous official claims of innocence, admitted Sunday night that French intelligence agents, acting under authorization, blew up the anti-nuclear protest ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand 10 weeks ago.
However, Fabius said that the agents who carried out the attack must be "exempted from blame" because they "only obeyed orders."
In reading an official statement to reporters in his office, the 39-year-old premier left unanswered the key political question of who in the government was responsible for ordering the attack on the ship, owned by the Greenpeace organization. He refused to answer reporters' questions.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister David Lange called Fabius' statement exempting the agents from blame "quite absurd." But he added that France's official admission of responsibility for the attack vindicated New Zealand's position in the affair.
The Fabius statement appeared to contradict the position taken by President Francois Mitterrand who, in ordering an inquiry into the sinking last month, declared: "If (French) responsibility is proven, the guilty parties, at whatever level they are found, will be severely punished."
However, Fabius proposed the creation of a special parliamentary commission to investigate the affair, which has shaken the Socialist administration of President Francois Mitterrand.
Speaking in measured tones, the premier said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the truth about this affair is cruel, but, as I have pledged, it must be clearly and completely established."
The admission of the government's guilt, after weeks of insistence that France had sent agents to spy on the ship but not to bomb it, was portrayed by Fabius as the first results of the work of the new minister of defense, Paul Quiles.
Quiles, who stood by Fabius' side in the Hotel Matignon, the premier's office, was appointed Friday after Mitterrand and Fabius forced the resignation of Minister of Defense Charles Hernu and dismissed Adm. Pierre Lacoste as director of the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE), as the French intelligence agency is known.
The ouster of Hernu and Lacoste came after the French press, in a series of investigative stories, published more and more evidence that discredited the official claims of innocence.
From the beginning, suspicion of responsibility for the July 10 explosion, which killed a Greenpeace photographer aboard the ship, fell on the French, since the bombing prevented the Rainbow Warrior from leading a protest flotilla into the French nuclear testing site at Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific.
In his statement, Fabius said that Quiles' preliminary inquiries had produced three grave conclusions: "It was agents of the DGSE who sank this boat. They acted under orders. The truth was hidden from Councilor of State Tricot."
When the first news reports of French involvement were published, the Mitterrand government asked Bernard Tricot, a member of the semi-juridical Council of State and a former chief of staff for President Charles de Gaulle, to investigate the affair.
Tricot, basing his conclusions mostly on interviews in the Ministry of Defense and the intelligence agency, reported Aug. 26 that two French agents under arrest in New Zealand and three others sought by New Zealand police had gone to the South Pacific to spy on the Rainbow Warrior but not to damage it.
Fabius also said Sunday that he and Mitterrand have agreed that a new director of intelligence will be named at the next Cabinet meeting, scheduled for Wednesday. The new director will be asked to overhaul the agency.
No Punishment for Agents
The premier stressed that the government does not intend to punish the agents who carried out the attack. "The people who merely carried out the act," Fabius said, "must, of course, be exempted from blame as it would be unacceptable to expose members of the military who only obeyed orders and who, in the past, have sometimes carried out very dangerous missions on behalf of our country."
Lange, according to a report from Wellington, the New Zealand capital, said that the exemption was a remarkable interpretation of international law.
"The idea that acting under the orders of a foreign power gives anyone license to execute criminal acts in a foreign country with immunity is, of course, quite absurd," Lange said.
The two agents in jail, Maj. Alan Mafart and Capt. Dominique Prieur, who posed as a Swiss couple touring New Zealand, face charges in the New Zealand courts of murder, arson and conspiracy.
The Tricot report identified three other agents, now in France, as frogmen who are known to have been on a sailing yacht in Auckland harbor a few hours before two mines blasted the Rainbow Warrior.