Australia, New Zealand send evacuation flights to New Caledonia

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON, May 21: Australia and New Zealand said they will send government planes to New Caledonia on Tuesday to evacuate nationals from the French territory which has experienced a week of deadly riots, sparked by electoral changes by the French government in Paris.

France’s High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday the airport remains closed for commercial flights, and it will deploy the military to protect public buildings.

There were around 3,200 people waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia as commercial flights were cancelled due to the unrest that broke out last week, the local government has said.

Over 1,000 gendarmes and police from France were at work, and another 600 personnel would be added in the coming hours, France’s High Commission said.

Roads in Noumea are being cleared, with bulldozers removing burnt-out car carcasses and debris, it added.

Six people have been killed and the unrest has left a trail of burnt businesses and cars and looted shops, with road barricades restricting access to medicine and food. The business chamber said 150 companies had been looted and burnt.

New Zealand, French and Australian foreign ministers held a call on Monday evening after New Zealand and Australia said they were waiting for clearance from French authorities to send defence aircraft to evacuate tourists.

A meeting of France’s defence council later agreed to arrangements to allow tourists to return home.

“New Zealanders in New Caledonia have faced a challenging few days – and bringing them home has been an urgent priority for the government,” New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters said.

“We want to acknowledge the support of relevant authorities, both in Paris and Nouméa, in facilitating this flight,” he added. Further flights will be sent in the coming days, he added.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a social media post on Tuesday that clearance had been received for two “Australian government assisted-departure flights today for Australian and other tourists to depart New Caledonia”.

Protests erupted last week, sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak people over a constitutional amendment approved in France that would change who is allowed to participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

Viro Xulue, part of a community group providing social assistance to other Kanaks amid the crisis, said it felt like a return to the civil war of the 1980s, and people were scared.

“We are really scared about the police, the French soldiers, and we are scared about the anti-Kanak militia terrorist group,” Xulue told Reuters in a video interview.

Three of six people killed in the unrest were young Kanaks shot by armed civilians, and there have been confrontations between Kanak protesters and armed self-defence groups or civilian militias formed to protect themselves, France’s High Commission previously said.

“The French Government doesn’t know how to control people here. They send more than 2,000 military to control, but it’s failed,” Xulue said.

Pro-independence political parties say they want the French government to withdraw the electoral reform before they restart talks, while France said re-establishing order was a precondition to dialogue.

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