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French marines patrol New Caledonia after deadly riots

By AFP

May 17, 2024 10:28 PM


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French marines on Friday patrolled the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, which local authorities said was "calmer" after days of riots over voting reform that have left five dead and hundreds injured.

Military and police "reinforcements will control areas that have got out of our hands in recent days," said French high commissioner Louis Le Franc, the highest-ranking state official in New Caledonia.

Anger over France's plan to impose new voting rules has spiralled into the deadliest violence in four decades in the archipelago of 270,000 people, which lies between Australia and Fiji -- 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) from Paris.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said Thursday that about 1,000 extra security forces were being sent to New Caledonia -- adding to the 1,700 already present.

They began landing Thursday at the French army-controlled La Tontouta International Airport and could be seen moving through the capital Noumea in red berets, toting rifles, gas masks and riot shields.

France's EFS blood supply agency said that supplies of blood were being sent over to deal with the "critical" situation.

President Emmanuel Macron cancelled a video conference with local leaders Thursday for lack of willing participants, but began contacting pro- and anti-independence officials individually on Friday, his office said.

Using state of emergency powers, security forces had imposed "a calmer and more peaceful situation" around Noumea for the first time since the unrest broke out on Monday, the high commission said early Friday.

But there were fires at a school and two companies, it added.

 Smouldering buildings

On Friday morning, AFP journalists saw flames and smoke pouring from a shopping centre, smouldering buildings, dozens of burned-out cars and residents dragging the remnants of vehicles off the roads.

Hundreds of people lined up outside shops for desperately needed food and supplies, although authorities have promised to bring in essential goods.

Le Franc described areas "where there are several hundred rioters waiting for just one thing: contact with the security forces".

Ten independence activists accused of organising violence have been placed under house arrest, according to authorities.

Two gendarmes have been killed: one shot in the head and a second shot in friendly fire, officials said.

Three other people -- all indigenous Kanaks -- have also been killed: a 17-year-old and two men aged 20 and 36.

One suspect in an unspecified homicide handed himself in and a second has been arrested on suspicion of killing two Kanaks.

France has accused Azerbaijan of "interference" in the politics of its Pacific territory, but Baku has rejected the claims.

On Friday, a French government agency, Viginum, said it detected a "massive and coordinated" online campaign pushing claims that French police had shot pro-independence demonstrators in New Caledonia. The government pointed to the involvement of "Azerbaijani actors" in the campaign.

 Barricades and burning tyres 

The violence is the worst seen in New Caledonia since unrest involving independence radicals rocked the French overseas territory in the 1980s.

New Caledonia has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums, but 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 with some local powers transferred from Paris.

French lawmakers this week pushed forward plans to allow people who moved to New Caledonia at least 10 years ago to vote 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.

Groups of Kanaks have set up roadblocks around the main island, waving the territory's flag, burning tyres and blocking or slowing traffic.

Other mostly non-indigenous residents, some armed, piled up garden chairs, crates and other belongings in neighbourhood barricades.

 TikTok challenge 

A local business group estimated the damage, concentrated around Noumea, at 200 million euros ($217 million).

French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has called on prosecutors to "take the strongest possible action against the perpetrators of the violence" and also indicated he was considering transferring the "criminals" to mainland France.

The Noumea public prosecutor's office opened an investigation targeting "the instigators" of the riots.

Paris has accused a group known as CCAT, which gathers the most radical separatists, of being behind the riots.

On Friday CCAT issued a statement calling for "a time of calm to break the spiral of violence".

Paris has closed the airport to commercial flights, shuttered schools, imposed a night-time curfew and banned gatherings, carrying weapons and the sale of alcohol.

The government has also blocked social network TikTok, saying it was being used by protesters.


AFP


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