Australia and New Zealand send evacuation flights to New Caledonia after week of deadly unrest

(Reuters) — Australia and New Zealand said they will send government planes to New Caledonia on Tuesday to evacuate nationals from the French territory that has experienced a week of deadly unrest sparked by the French government’s electoral changes in Paris.

France’s High Commissioner in New Caledonia said Tuesday that the airport remains closed to commercial flights and that the army will be deployed to protect public buildings.

Around 3,200 people were waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia after commercial flights were canceled due to unrest that broke out last week, according to the local government.

More than 1,000 French gendarmes and police were working, and another 600 troops would be added in the next few hours, according to the French High Commissioner.

Six people died and the riots left a trail of burned businesses, cars and looted stores, with road barricades restricting access to medicine and food. The business chamber said 150 businesses had been looted and burned.

A burned building in the Normandy industrial zone in Noumea, French territory of New Caledonia in the Pacific, on May 20, 2024. (Credit: Theo Rouby/AFP/Getty Images)

The foreign ministers of New Zealand, France and Australia held a telephone meeting on Monday afternoon, after both countries said they were waiting for authorization from French authorities to send defense planes to evacuate tourists.

A meeting of the French Defense Council later agreed on the necessary arrangements for tourists to return home.

“New Zealanders in New Caledonia have faced a difficult few days, and bringing them home has been an urgent priority for the government,” said New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

“We would like to thank the competent authorities, both in Paris and Noumea, for their support in facilitating this flight,” he added. More flights will be sent in the coming days, he added.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a social media message on Tuesday that authorization had been received for two “assisted departure flights from the Australian Government today for Australian and non-Australian tourists to depart New Caledonia.”

The protests erupted last week, sparked by anger among the indigenous Kanak population over a constitutional amendment passed in France that would change who can participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

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