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13 Jun 2024 6:09
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  •   Home > News > Law and Order

    Australians barricaded in New Caledonia accommodation as violence spreads, French government hopeful riots are calming

    The first of the extra 1,000 security personnel France is sending to New Caledonia have started to arrive amid riots that have killed five people and injured hundreds more, with the French government saying a state of emergency has started to calm things in the Pacific territory.


    An Australian trapped in New Caledonia during violent riots has had to arm herself and barricade inside her accommodation for five days.

    It comes as French authorities are cautiously optimistic that the situation may be calming.

    Christine Domigan travelled to the French Pacific territory for an upcoming wedding with a group of friends and as the unrest in Noumea turned fatal, she heard "explosions, gunshots, Molotov cocktails", she told ABC Hobart.

    "We can hear yelling and three-quarters of [what] we can see has been continually on fire," Ms Domigan said.

    Her neighbours have barricaded the street on which she and her friends have been staying, after a house four doors down from theirs was set alight with a Molotov cocktail two nights ago, she said.

    There's not been any help from local authorities, she said.

    "There's no police or army that are coming to where we are," she said.

    "So we have armed ourselves, we have discussed escape routes, possible dangers … we've got 'go bags'."

    Ms Domigan, who has been staying with three friends who also travelled from Australia for the party, said they had a hatchet, a rolling pin and a makeshift broom knife.

    "It's a bit of a blade on the end of a broom," Ms Domigan said.

    "We've also used that to get coconuts down because obviously it's been five days of not being able to get to any food."

    She said they hoped not to use the weapons, but were worried that some people were armed with automatic guns.

    Ms Domigan said she was yet to hear from Australian officials in the country.

    She said when she contacted them, she was put through to officials in Canberra.

    "They had no further information for us, they just told us to stay inside and stay safe," she said.

    Her flight out is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and while it's not been cancelled, Ms Domigan said the airline "can't guarantee anything".

    The road from where she is to the airport has been badly damaged, and the drive that usually takes 40 minutes would likely take 4 hours, Ms Domigan said.

    "There are still fires and blockages [on the road]," she told the ABC.

    French reinforcements begin arriving

    A second police officer has been killed in riots gripping New Caledonia, as violence continues over proposed voting reforms despite a state of emergency coming into effect in the territory.

    French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced on Thursday local time that about 1,000 extra security personnel were being sent to the island — taking the number of police and gendarmes on the island from 1,700 to 2,700 by Friday night local time.

    On Friday afternoon, French police reinforcements started arriving as part of a massive operation to regain control of Noumea.

    Operations to supply food and medicine to the public will begin with teams, including specialists in mine clearing, removing road barricades that have been booby trapped by activists, France's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said.

    "Reinforcements will arrive massively, immediately [and will be] deployed to control the areas which have escaped our control in recent days … to reconquer all the areas of the urban area which we have lost," he said.

    Rioters angry with an electoral reform have burnt businesses, torched cars, looted shops and set up road barricades over three days, cutting off access to medicine and food, authorities said.

    "Our calls for calm, peace and reconciliation are beginning to be heard … It is important that those who are at the origin of the clashes, of the blockages, hear this," Mr Le Franc said.

    The New Caledonia government said in a statement on Friday the island has stocks of food for two months and the problem is distribution.

    The move came after French Interior and Overseas Territories Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP that a second gendarme was killed on Thursday.

    A police source told AFP he was killed by friendly fire.

    Prime Minister Attal confirmed that troops had been stationed at New Caledonia's ports and international airport to free up police and security forces battling other crimes.

    President Emmanuel Macron "asked us to show the utmost firmness towards looters and rioters," he added, announcing a toughening of sanctions.

    France moved to impose a state of emergency on Wednesday, which took effect at 5am in New Caledonia on Thursday.

    "The state of emergency has made it possible, for the first time since Monday, to return to a calmer and more peaceful situation in greater Noumea," the French High Commission said in a statement. 

    The Pacific Conference of Churches has issued a statement saying: "The violence that the country is currently experiencing are once again endangering the dignity of the life of every human being in the territory.

    "As we pray and call for a cessation of violence, by all sides, we are also cognisant of the reality that what we have witnessed, not only over the past few days, but in the months since the fist of the French government began to squeeze tighter on the throats of the Kanak people as they continue to cry from the depths of their hearts for their own experience of liberty, equity and fraternity," the statement said, referring to the French national motto.

    "It cannot be ignored that eruption of violence is the manifestation of the pain, trauma and frustration of a community who have consistently had their indigenous and political rights undermined, by a French government whose rhetoric of being a 'Pacific nation' is exposed by its actions."

    Five dead, hundreds wounded and arrested

    The three nights of violent clashes have left five dead and hundreds wounded.

    The French High Commission said more than 200 "rioters" have been arrested.

    It added that "people have been ambushing law enforcement officers" with "sustained fire from hunting rifles".

    Hundreds of people, including 64 police, have been wounded, officials said, among the territory's population of around 270,000.

    Protests against a French plan to impose new voting rules on its Pacific archipelago have spiralled into the deadliest violence since the 1980s.

    "Everything's burning, people have literally no limits, because they are literally shooting at each other, I've never seen this much violence," New Caledonia student Olivia Iloa said.

    Palm-lined boulevards in the capital Noumea, that are usually thronged with tourists, were littered with debris and patrolled by armoured vehicles, while some locals piled up household objects to make roadblocks.

    Mr Darmanin said "the [French] state will regain total control".

    He said 10 people, all alleged members of the pro-independence movement known as The Field Acton Coordination Unit, have been placed under house arrest.

    In April, the group had backed several protests against French authorities on the island.

    However, Mr Darmanin alleged on Thursday that the movement is a "small group which calls itself pro-independence, but instead commits looting, murder and violence."

    The National Council of Chiefs of the Indigenous Kanak people condemned "all acts of vandalism and gun violence" as "unjustifiable," but rejected the allegations that members of The Field Action Coordination Unit have been involved in the deadly violence.

    'Very tense' situation

    Authorities reported a third night of "clashes", although AFP correspondents in Noumea said it appeared calmer than previous nights.

    Onlookers wandered around burnt-out shops, looted shelves and discarded packaging.

    "We just grabbed what there was in the shops to eat. Soon there will be no more shops," said one woman in a Noumea suburb on condition of anonymity.

    "We need milk for the children. I don't see it as looting," she told AFP.

    The high commission said France was establishing an "air bridge" to bring in troops, police reinforcements and essential supplies for the population.

    Nicole George, an Australian professor visiting Noumea, told AFP she had seen residents armed with improvised weapons manning barricades.

    "It is a very tense situation. People are on edge. They are frightened. They are tired," she said.

    President Macron offered to hold talks on Thursday with New Caledonian politicians and called for a resumption of political dialogue.

    Paris has opened the door to suspending the reform bill — which would allow outsiders who moved to the territory at least 10 years ago the right to vote in its elections — if there is a new deal soon on the future of the island.

    But in a sign of how challenging that is, Mr Macron cancelled plans to hold a video call with various political leaders from the island.

    French government sources told AP the leaders did not want to talk with each other, and Mr Macron will have individual contacts with them instead.

    France accuses Azerbaijan of interference

    French officials have for some time been concerned about the interest taken by Azerbaijan in French overseas territories including New Caledonia, in spite of the vast geographical and cultural distance.

    "This isn't a fantasy. It's a reality," Mr Darmanin told France 2 TV when asked if Azerbaijan, China and Russia were interfering in New Caledonia.

    "I regret that some of the Caledonian pro-independence leaders have made a deal with Azerbaijan. It's indisputable," he alleged.

    Azerbaijan's foreign ministry spokesman Ayhan Hajizadeh said the accusations were "baseless".

    "We refute any connection between the leaders of the struggle for freedom in Caledonia and Azerbaijan," he said.

    Azerbaijan invited separatists from the French territories of Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia and French Polynesia to Baku for a conference in July 2023.

    The meeting saw the creation of the "Baku Initiative Group", whose stated aim is to support "French liberation and anti-colonialist movements".

    The group published a statement this week condemning the French parliament's proposed change to New Caledonia's constitution.

    Pro-independence forces say allowing more people to vote would dilute the vote of Kanaks, who make up about 40 per cent of the population.

    "We stand in solidarity with our Kanak friends and support their fair struggle," the Baku Initiative Group said.

    The reform must still be approved by a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament.  

    Mr Macron has said French lawmakers will vote to adopt the constitutional change by the end of June unless New Caledonia's opposing sides can strike a new deal.

    [data wrapper map]

    New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji — 17,000 km from Paris — is one of several territories around the globe that remain under French control in the post-colonial era. 

    Colonised by France from the second half of the 19th century, it has special status, unlike the country's other overseas territories.

    While it has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums, independence retains strong support among the Kanak people, whose ancestors have lived on the islands for thousands of years.

    ABC/Wires

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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