France Says Will Quell New Caledonia Riots 'Whatever The Cost'

(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AFP

Noumea: French forces smashed through dozens of barricades in a bid to retake the main road to New Caledonia's airport and a top official said Sunday that Paris would reclaim all of the Pacific territory from pro-independence militants "whatever the cost".

After six nights of violence that have left six dead and hundreds injured, French government high commissioner Louis Le Franc warned in a televised address that new raids on independence strongholds would be staged.

"Republican order will be re-established whatever the cost," Le Franc said, adding that if separatists "want to use their arms, they will be risking the worst".

New Caledonia, with a population of about 270,000, has been convulsed by unrest since Monday, sparked by French plans to impose new rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights.

The French territory off northeastern Australia has long been riven by pro-independence tensions. But this is the worst violence in decades.

Protesters have set vehicles, businesses and public buildings alight and taken control of the main road to La Tontouta International Airport which has been closed to commercial flights.

'Short of food'

Authorities say about 230 people have been detained while an estimated 3,200 people are either stuck in New Caledonia or unable to return to the archipelago.

France says about 1,000 additional security forces have been sent to the islands.

Some 600 heavily armed police and paramilitaries took part in an operation Sunday to retake the 60-kilometre (40-mile) main road from the capital Noumea to the airport, authorities said.

Forces with armoured vehicles and construction equipment destroyed 76 roadblocks, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin posted on X, formerly Twitter.

"The police came through, they cleared the road, and we stood aside. We're pacifists," said Jean-Charles, a man in his 50s wearing a scarf around his head and carrying a Kanak independence flag a few kilometres outside the airport.

"Once they were gone, we put the roadblock back up," he added.

The highway is needed to restore supply chains as the archipelago faces shortages of items from groceries to blood for transfusions. "We are starting to run short of food," Le Franc said.

'This will end'

A night-time curfew, state of emergency, ban on TikTok and reinforcements all failed to prevent more unrest from overnight Saturday to Sunday.

Unidentified groups set two fires and raided a petrol station, Le Franc's office said, as well as destroying schools, pharmacies and supermarkets.

The local government said schools would be closed until May 24. But authorities insisted the situation is improving, noting "the night has been calmer".

Le Franc said security forces would now stage "harassment" raids to reclaim other parts of the territory held by pro-independence groups.

"This will all come to an end, believe me," Le Franc added.

In Wellington, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the New Zealand military had "completed preparations" for repatriation flights.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester and his wife Tiffany were barricaded in a resort on the airport road for days after they were supposed to leave Noumea.

"We're just about to run out of food," he said, adding: "Every night we had to sleep with one eye open... worried that they were coming in to loot us."

"This morning at an exit near here, the gendarmerie was coming through and there was a shootout," Winchester said.

'Prevent civil war'

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

Almost two centuries on, its politics remain dominated by debate about whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent -- with opinions split roughly along ethnic lines.

Indigenous Kanaks make up about 39 percent of the population but tend to be poorer and have fewer years of schooling than European Caledonians.

Kanak groups say the latest voting regulations would dilute the Kanak vote.

The presidents of four other French overseas territories -- La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and French Guiana in South America -- on Sunday called for the withdrawal of the voting reform in an open letter.

"Only a political response can halt the rising violence and prevent civil war," they warned, saying they "call on the government to withdraw the constitutional reform bill aiming to change the electoral roll... as the precursor to a peaceful dialogue".

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups have challenged the TikTok ban, with an emergency hearing slated at France's top administrative court in Paris on Tuesday.


The Peninsula

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