Pacific Islands

Australia, NZ unable to send evacuation flights to New Caledonia

May 20, 2024 4:41 pm

[Source: Reuters]

A thousand police arrived in New Caledonia from France and street clashes had calmed, the French High Commission said on Monday, but Australia and New Zealand were unable to send in evacuation flights for tourists stranded on the Pacific island.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “the situation there is deeply concerning”, as damage to roads and blockades prevented access to the airport in the French-ruled territory that has been hit by deadly riots over the past week.

France’s top official in the territory, Louis Le Franc, said on Sunday evening a police operation to regain control of the road from the capital Noumea to the international airport would take several days. Gendarmes had dismantled 76 road blocks.

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After a night when there was fire and looting, Albanese told ABC radio that Australia had been seeking approval from French authorities for two days to send an evacuation flight to New Caledonia to pick up tourists stranded in hotels.

Around 300 Australians have registered with consular officials in the French territory, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia.

“The international airport remains closed, roads have been damaged, there are blockades in place,” Albanese said.

“We continue to pursue approvals because the Australian Defence Force is ready to fly when it’s permitted to do so,” he added.

There are around 3,200 people stuck waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia as commercial flights have been cancelled due to the unrest that broke out last week, the local government said.

New Zealand defence aircraft were also on standby to bring New Zealand nationals home, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters said.

“We are ready to fly, and await approval from French authorities as to when our flights are safe to proceed,” he wrote on social media platform X on Sunday.

Protests erupted last week sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak people over a constitutional amendment approved in France that will change who is allowed to participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

Six people have been killed and the unrest has left a trail of burnt businesses, torched cars, looted shops, and road barricades, cutting off access to medicine and food.

Three of those killed were indigenous Kanak and two were police officers.

A sixth person was killed and two seriously injured on Saturday during a gun battle between two groups at a roadblock in Kaala-Gomen, French police said.

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