French forces clear New Caledonia roadblocks as official vows to end unrest

Dozens of barricades dismantled along key road linking airport to capital Noumea, French officials say.

This photograph shows burnt vehicles at a roadblock at La Tamoa, in the commune of Paita, in New Caledonia on May 19 [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]Published On 19 May 202419 May 2024

French forces trying to stem unrest in the Pacific island territory of New Caledonia have cleared dozens of barricades that had been blocking the main road linking the airport to the capital, Noumea, a senior official said.

Around 60 barricades that protesters had put up along the 60km (37-mile) road have been dismantled, but the road is not yet open as debris needs to be cleared, which will take several days, Louis Le Franc, the territory’s high commissioner, said on Sunday.

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In a televised address, Le Franc also pledged to restore order in New Caledonia after at least six people were killed and hundreds more injured in protests that erupted last Monday in anger over a contentious constitutional amendment.

The Indigenous Kanak people – who make up about 40 percent of the population in the French territory – have slammed the new rules that will change who is allowed to participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

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

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

France deployed troops to New Caledonia’s ports and international airport, and it also banned TikTok as the government imposed a state of emergency on May 16.

Three of those killed were members of the Kanak community and two were police officers.

A sixth person was killed and two seriously injured on Saturday during what French police said was a gun battle between two groups at a roadblock in Kaala-Gomen. The police did not identify the groups.

Some 600 heavily armed police and paramilitaries took part in the operation on Sunday to retake the main road from the capital to the airport, authorities said.

Forces with armoured vehicles and construction equipment destroyed 76 roadblocks, France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in a post on social media.

The minister said more than 200 arrests had been made, adding that “there are still many obstacles to be lifted to impose republican order”.

Dominique Fochi, secretary-general of the leading independence movement in the territory, urged calm but said the French government must suspend the constitutional change.

“We need strong actions to calm the situation, the government needs to stop putting oil on the fire,” Fochi told the Reuters news agency.

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”.

French President Emmanuel Macron will hold a defence and national security council meeting on Monday evening to discuss the situation in the territory, the Elysee Palace said.

Source: News Agencies