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New Caledonia: Australia and New Zealand send evacuation flights due to unrest

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, New Caledonia has been gripped by riots since lawmakers in France introduced reforms to give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents the right to vote in the Pacific region

  • Author, Simon Atkinson
  • Role, BBC News, in Brisbane

Australia and New Zealand say they have been given permission to send planes to New Caledonia to pick up travelers stranded after unrest closed the international airport.

Australia will deploy two planes on Tuesday to evacuate some of the 300 citizens who have registered for aid in the French Pacific region.

The first of “a series” of proposed flights will also leave New Zealand and take about 50 people home, the government in Wellington said.

The unrest began last week after lawmakers in Paris passed changes that will allow more French residents to vote in local elections, a move that indigenous leaders say will weaken the indigenous people’s political influence.

Four civilians – including at least three Kanak natives – were killed in the clashes along with two police officers.

Dozens of others have been injured and more than 200 people have been arrested so far.

Both Australia and New Zealand said they would prioritize flying for those with the most “urgent need”, with passenger lists drawn up by consular staff.

Tourists from “other countries” would also be helped, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said.

Holidaymakers who have been stuck for more than a week have not only witnessed fires and looting, but have also reported food shortages.

“The situation in New Caledonia remains dynamic and New Zealand officials continue to work with French counterparts and other partners, especially Australia, to understand what is needed to ensure the safety of our people there,” said the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters.

There are believed to be approximately 290 New Zealanders in New Caledonia.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester told AFP he and his wife Tiffany were “ecstatic” at the prospect of returning home after being cooped up in a resort near Nouméa for more than a week.

“We realize that we probably won’t get on these flights because those who have higher needs will get on, but at least we know we have a way out in the coming days,” he said.

The French High Commission in New Caledonia says French gendarmes trying to regain control of the 60-kilometer road between Nouméa and La Tontouta International have “neutralized” 76 roadblocks and are now clearing debris such as burnt-out vehicles.

The Australian government’s travel advice has warned people not to go to the airport themselves as the route is “not yet considered safe”.

The airport remains closed to commercial flights and a decision on when it will reopen will be reassessed on Thursday, the local government said.

It is estimated that around 3,200 people are waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia.

France has flown in 1,050 additional police officers to boost security in the area, and another 600 reinforcements will arrive “in the coming hours”, the French High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday.

The army is being deployed to protect public buildings, it added.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the army would have to remain deployed in New Caledonia “for a while”.