Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior Sinking New Zealand
Greenpeace's first Rainbow Warrior vessel was sunk in the Bay of Auckland, New Zealand, by French spiesPatrick Riviere/Getty Images

The French intelligence agent who led the attack on Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior that killed photographer Fernando Pereira has apologised for his actions for the first time 30 years. Jean-Luc Kister admitted to the Sunday programme on New Zealand's national broadcaster TVNZ that the action had "resulted in the accidental death of an innocent man" and that the destruction of the flagship vessel had been "disproportionate".

He also admitted that the actions had been "an unfair, clandestine operation" that had been conducted in a country that was allied to France. However, he excused his actions and said "we had to obey orders, we were soldiers".

Greenpeace replied to his admission in a statement. The charity said that Kister's apology would not bring Pereira 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". The charity has suggested that a street in Paris be named after the dead photographer.

Rainbow Warrior was being prepared to set sail to the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia, where tests were due to be carried out by the charity. The atoll had been the site of nuclear weapon tests between 1966-1996, fuelling international outrage and protests – notably in 1974 and later in 1995. The ship was mined by the French intelligence services to stop the mission, and more protests, going ahead.

Kister told the programme that he had not meant injury to come to Pereira and that his team had meant to disable the ship. He said he wanted to apologise to the photographer's family, to members of Greenpeace who crewed the Rainbow Warrior at the time, and to the people of New Zealand.

The first Rainbow Warrior was a former fishing trawler, called the Sir William Hardy, that had been acquired by the charity in 1977. She was relaunched under the name Rainbow Warrior after a four-month refit. The vessel was replaced by a three-masted Schooner, Rainbow Warrior II. That ship was superceded by a motor-assisted sailing yacht, the Rainbow Warrior III in 2011.