25 May 2024, 11:29

First French tourists evacuated from New Caledonia

NOUMEA, May 25, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - The first evacuation flights for French tourists stranded in New Caledonia due to riots in the Pacific territory took off Saturday, the high commission in the archipelago said.

The international airport in the capital Noumea has remained closed for more than a week and all commercial flights have been cancelled due to the unrest.

"Measures to send foreigners and French tourists home continue," the high commission, which represents the French state, said in a statement.

The tourists departed Saturday from Magenta airfield in Noumea aboard military aircraft headed for Australia and New Zealand, according to an AFP journalist.

They will then have to take commercial flights to mainland France.

"I came on vacation to visit my best friend (...) The conflict broke out and I got stuck," in Noumea, Audrey, who did not give her last name, told AFP.

Australia and New Zealand had already begun repatriating their nationals on Tuesday.

The situation has been gradually easing for the many people trapped in the territory which has been shaken since May 13 by riots over planned voting reforms.

Seven people have been killed in the violence, the latest a man shot dead on Friday by a policeman who was attacked by protesters.

President Emmanuel Macron flew to the archipelago on Thursday in an urgent bid to defuse the political crisis.

He pledged during his lightning trip that the planned voting reforms "will not be forced through".

Indigenous Kanaks had objected that the planned reform would dilute their influence by extending voting rights to newcomers to the Pacific archipelago, located about 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) from mainland France.

"Violence should never be allowed to take root," Macron said during a televised interview with local journalists at the end of his visit Friday.

"What I want is a message of order and return to calm as this is not the Wild West," he said.

"A path must be opened for the calming of tensions and this will allow us to build what happens next."

The pro-independence FLNKS party on Saturday reiterated its demand for the withdrawal of the voting reforms after meeting with Macron.

"The FLNKS asked the President of the French Republic that a strong announcement be made from him indicating the withdrawal of the draft constitutional law," it said in a statement, saying it was a "prerequisite to ending the crisis".

In Paris, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said "the situation in New Caledonia today remains extremely fragile".

France has enforced a state of emergency, flying in hundreds of police and military reinforcements to restore order.

New Caledonia has been ruled from Paris since the 1800s, but many Indigenous Kanaks still resent France's power over their islands and want fuller autonomy or independence.


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