La Gaceta De Mexico - France deploys additional forces to quell New Caledonia unrest

France deploys additional forces to quell New Caledonia unrest
France deploys additional forces to quell New Caledonia unrest / Photo: © AFP

France deploys additional forces to quell New Caledonia unrest

France on Thursday announced it would send additional security forces to New Caledonia after imposing a state of emergency, following three nights of clashes in its Pacific territory that have left five dead and hundreds wounded.

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Largely indigenous protests against a French plan to impose new voting rules on the archipelago have spiralled into the deadliest violence since the 1980s.

New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) from Paris, is one of several territories around the globe that remain part of France in the post-colonial era.

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.

A gendarme was killed on Thursday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP, bringing to two the number of police officers who have died.

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

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said Paris would send "around 1,000 additional internal security personnel" to New Caledonia -- adding to 1,700 on the ground -- and push for "the harshest penalties for rioters and looters".

Late Wednesday he told a ministerial crisis meeting that troops had been deployed to secure ports and the international airport in New Caledonia, which has been closed to commercial flights.

TikTok had been banned because it was being used by protesters, he said.

In Noumea, there was a suspected arson attack on the building housing a consultative body for the indigenous Kanak people, its staff said, although the extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

Security forces placed five suspected ringleaders under house arrest, according to the high commission, which represents the French state in New Caledonia.

More than 200 of an estimated 5,000 "rioters" in greater Noumea have been arrested, the high commission said.

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.

- 'People are on edge' -

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.

Between 80 and 90 percent of the grocery distribution network in Noumea -- from shops to warehouses and wholesalers -- had been "wiped out", Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) president David Guyenne said.

"The structure of New Caledonia's economy has been harmed," he added.

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.

Sonia Backes, the leader of New Caledonia's southern province which includes Noumea, wrote to Attal asking for a 150-million-euro ($163-million) "one-off reconstruction fund" to repair the damage, while the CCI estimated the impact at 200 million euros.

- 'Interference' -

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

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

French lawmakers on Tuesday pushed forward plans to allow outsiders who moved to New Caledonia at least 10 years ago to cast ballots in the territory's elections.

Pro-independence forces say that would dilute the vote of Kanaks, who make up about 40 percent of the population.

A group of independence movements in French territories around the world convened by Azerbaijan issued statements about the riots on Tuesday and Thursday, prompting Darmanin to accuse Baku of "interference".

Baku swiftly rejected the allegation as "baseless".

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

But a videoconference planned for Thursday was dropped as "the different players didn't want to speak to one another for now", his office said.