PARIS - The former head of France's external intelligence service has admitted that a third team of French spies took part in Operation Satanique, the mission to sink the Rainbow Warrior.

Admiral Pierre Lacoste, who headed France's Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE) from 1982 until being fired in the aftermath of the 1985 debacle, said that, in addition to the team of Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur and the crew of the yacht Ouvea, a third team had operated in New Zealand.

Questioned by the Herald as to whether there had been a third team, Lacoste said simply: "Yes, obviously." But he refused to reveal the identities of those in the team.

As commander of the DGSE at the time, Lacoste knows the identities of all the agents who were deployed in the operation to stop the Rainbow Warrior reaching Mururoa.

Lacoste's confirmation of a third team marks the first time a French official has publicly acknowledged its existence, although New Zealand detectives long suspected there was one.

Lacoste said the third team was not operating under the command of Louis Dillais, who has already been named as a leader of the operation. A separate source says the team was a two-person squad of combat divers, led by a male officer with the codename Rene, and all three made their escape from New Zealand around two weeks after the attack.

Mafart and Prieur, convicted for manslaughter in New Zealand, say they carried out the role of reconnaissance and logistics, while the Ouvea crew brought in the tailor-made limpet mines hidden in canisters for inflatable lifeboats.

Lacoste, now 81, said he accepted responsibility for the mission and admitted that it had been a serious failure because of the death of Fernando Pereira. The drowning was quite unintended, but weighed greatly on his conscience, he said.

"I would perfectly understand it if New Zealanders considered this act to be an act of terrorism, to sink a boat in a port where there are just yachtsmen, peaceful people," he said.

"It does not really deserve to be called that, but if it is felt in that way, that is reality," he said. "...One reason for the failure [of the operation] is precisely because every precaution was taken to avoid causing death ... its terrible, it is a very heavy burden to carry."

Lacoste said that, several days after the attack, with Mafart and Prieur in custody and a political scandal intensifying, he suggested to then President Francois Mitterrand that France try to defuse the crisis by discreetly admitting its involvement to New Zealand officials, but the idea was ignored.

The three teams of secret agents behind the sinking of the original Rainbow Warrior in 1985 were:

* Team One: Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, responsible for reconnaissance and logistics. Both were caught.

* Team Two: The crew of the yacht Ouvea, which brought in the limpet mines.

* Team Three: The unknown divers who carried out the July 10 bombing.