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New Caledonia ‘under siege’ due to riots – Mayor of the capital

New Caledonia ‘under siege’ due to riots – Mayor of the capital

Image source, Getty Images

  • author, Christy Cooney
  • Role, BBC News

The Pacific territory of New Caledonia is “under siege”, the mayor of New Caledonia’s capital said, days after riots left six people dead.

Noumea Mayor Sonia Lagarde said several public buildings on the archipelago had been set on fire, and that despite the arrival of hundreds of police reinforcements, the situation was “far from returning to calm.”

The French Interior Minister said that French gendarmerie forces launched a major operation to regain control of a 60-kilometre road between Noumea and the airport.

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

A sixth person was killed and two wounded during an exchange of fire at a makeshift roadblock in the north of the region on Saturday, officials said.

It was previously confirmed that three indigenous Kanak people, aged between 17 and 36, and two police officers were killed.

Images from the area showed rows of burned-out cars, makeshift roadblocks and long queues of people outside supermarkets.

The authorities declared a state of emergency, which included a night-time curfew, as well as a ban on public gatherings, the sale of alcoholic beverages, and the carrying of weapons.

She added, “On the contrary, despite all the calls for calm.”

She said it was “impossible” to determine the extent of the damage that had actually occurred, but that the burned buildings included municipal buildings, libraries and schools.

Can we say that we are in a besieged city? “Yes, I think we can say that,” she said. “It’s ruin.”

She added that security forces “need to be given a little time” to secure the situation.

Residents reported hearing gunfire, helicopters, and “massive explosions” believed to be gas bombs exploding inside a burning building.

Helen (42 years old), who alternately guards temporary barriers with her neighbors, told AFP: “At night we hear gunfire and the sounds of explosions.”

With the closure of Noumea International Airport due to safety concerns, about 3,200 tourists and other travelers were stranded inside or outside the archipelago, according to Agence France-Presse.

Tourists inside the area described having to ration supplies while waiting for their way to leave.

Joanne Elias, from Australia, who is at a resort in Noumea with her husband and four children, said she was asked to fill the bathtub in case the water ran out.

“The kids are definitely hungry because we don’t have a lot of choices about what we can feed them,” she said.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be here.”

Opposition to the changes to the law has attracted support in France, with a solidarity protest in Toulouse on Saturday and Kanak flags among those raised at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris.

The unrest also renewed diplomatic tensions between France and Azerbaijan, which escalated last year after Azerbaijan seized the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The region, which is majority Armenian but lies within Azerbaijan, has been the subject of a long-running dispute in which France has supported Armenia.

French government agency Vigenome, which monitors foreign digital interference, said on Friday it had discovered a “massive and coordinated” online campaign pushing allegations that French police officers shot pro-independence protesters in New Caledonia.

The government claimed the involvement of “Azerbaijani representatives” in the campaign, although the Azerbaijani government rejected these allegations.

The social media app TikTok has now been banned in the region.

New Caledonia held three referendums on independence. The first two candidates showed a slim majority for the remaining part of France.

The third was boycotted by pro-independence parties after the authorities refused to postpone the vote due to the Covid epidemic.