Unrest in New Caledonia: Australians and New Zealanders Flown Home

An Australian military transport plane has departed from New Caledonia, carrying travellers stranded after unrest shut down the island’s international airport.

This flight is the first of two Australian aircraft sent to rescue 300 citizens who have registered for assistance in the French Pacific territory. A New Zealand Air Force plane has also arrived, according to Flightradar24, as part of a series of proposed flights to bring about 50 people home.

The unrest began last week after lawmakers in Paris voted through changes allowing more French residents to vote in local elections, a move indigenous leaders say will dilute the political influence of native people. Four civilians, including at least three indigenous Kanak residents, have been killed in riots, along with two police officers. Dozens more have been injured, and over 200 people have been arrested so far.

Both Australia and New Zealand have stated they will prioritize flying out those with the most “pressing need,” with passenger lists organized by consular staff. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said tourists from other countries would also be assisted.

France’s High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday that the airport remains closed for commercial flights and that the military would be deployed to protect public buildings. As well as witnessing fires and looting, holidaymakers who have been stuck for over a week have reported food shortages.

“The situation in New Caledonia remains dynamic, and New Zealand officials are continuing to work with French counterparts and other partners, especially Australia, to ensure the safety of our people there,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said. Around 290 New Zealanders are believed to be in New Caledonia.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester told AFP news agency that he and his wife Tiffany were “ecstatic” at the prospect of getting home after being confined to a resort near Nouméa for over a week. “We realize we probably won’t get on these flights, because those with higher needs will get on them, but we at least know we have a way out in the next few days,” he said.

The French High Commission in New Caledonia reported that French gendarmes, trying to regain control of the 60km (37 mile) road between Nouméa and La Tontouta International Airport, have “neutralized” 76 roadblocks and are now clearing debris such as burnt-out vehicles.

Reuters Two burnt out cars on a road

AFP journalists reported that pro-independence Kanak activists had reconstructed roadblocks in the area.

A masked 25-year-old protester, identified only as Stanley, expressed concerns about proposed voting reforms, stating that they could result in the marginalization of the Kanak people. “That’s what they don’t understand over there – we are already in the minority in our own home,” he told AFP.

Another masked individual, named Simon and aged 34, mentioned that they were allowing drivers to pass through the roadblock, emphasizing that the situation was calm and that regular drivers were familiar with them.

The Australian government has advised against attempting to reach the airport independently, cautioning that the route “is not yet considered safe.”

The airport remains closed for commercial flights, with a decision on reopening expected to be reassessed on Thursday, according to local government officials. An estimated 3,200 people are waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia.

In response to the unrest, France has dispatched 1,050 additional police officers to bolster security in the territory, with another 600 reinforcements expected to arrive “in the coming hours,” as stated by France’s High Commission in New Caledonia on Tuesday. Military personnel are being deployed to safeguard public buildings.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron cautioned that the military would need to remain deployed in New Caledonia “for some time.”

Viro Xulue, a member of a Kanak community group providing social assistance, expressed concerns reminiscent of the unrest in the 1980s. “We are really scared about the police, the French soldiers, and we are scared about the anti-Kanak militia terrorist group,” Xulue told Reuters. “The French Government doesn’t know how to control people here. They send more than 2,000 military to control, but it’s a fail.”

New Caledonia has been under French rule since the mid-1800s.

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