* France recognises link between tests and illnesses * Burden of proof reversed * Government sets aside 10 million euros initially
(Adds quotes from defence minister)
By Sophie Hardach and Estelle Shirbon
PARIS, March 24 (Reuters) - France will compensate victims of past nuclear tests in the south Pacific and the Sahara, and for the first time has formally recognised a link between the explosions and illnesses suffered by soldiers and civilians.
Defence Minister Herve Morin told reporters on Tuesday France had conducted the tests as safely as possible, and had needed them to build up a credible nuclear deterrent and emerge as a global nuclear power.
"Thirteen years after the end of tests in the Pacific ... it’s time for our country to be at peace with itself, thanks to a system of compensation and mending the damage that was suffered," he told a news conference.
Some veterans who worked on the tests in Algeria and French Polynesian atolls in the Pacific have reported they were ordered to lie down and cover their eyes during the explosions, while wearing nothing more than shorts and T-shirts.
Several said they were told to drive or sail into the damaged area immediately after the blast to examine the impact.
France had long refused to recognise officially a link between the tests, which ended in 1996, and diseases afflicting some of the 150,000 army and civilian staff who were at the sites.
"The burden of proof will be reversed: victims will no longer have to prove that their illness is due to the nuclear tests, but it will be up the state to contest that," Morin said, listing the principles of the proposed compensation scheme.
He also said compensation would no longer depend on whether victims were military staff, civilian staff or residents, and would apply to all nationalities.
France ran a total of 210 nuclear tests, in Algeria between 1960 and 1966, then in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996.
Veteran Michel Verger worked on the first two tests in Algeria — the first saw the detonation of an atomic bomb stronger than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
"We are satisfied, especially about the recognition of what caused these illnesses, which was never written down this way before," Verger, now head of the association of victims of the tests, AVEN, told reporters outside the defence ministry.
An initial 10 million euros ($13.5 million) has been earmarked for the programme.
An independent commission of doctors will examine existing and future claims, including those concerning "moral or aesthetic" damage, Morin told the news conference.
The doctors will be able to access all files on the tests and their impact.
Staff and residents of areas close to the testing zones have long complained of health problems including leukemia and other forms of cancer, and activists denounced the testing programme for decades. There have been numerous court cases.
In the latest one, in February, 12 former soldiers suffering from grave diseases took their claims for compensation to an appeals court in Paris to try to force the government to recognise a link with the tests. The case continues.
Hostility to the tests reached its climax after French secret agents sank the environmental group Greenpeace’s ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985.
The French wanted to prevent the ship from disrupting nuclear tests, but the attack was made public and became an international scandal and a public relations disaster for Paris.
Morin brushed off questions about the history of the tests.
"It was a page. We have turned it. Now we are writing a new one," he said. (Reporting by Sophie Hardach and Estelle Shirbon)