New Caledonia ‘under siege’ from rioting, says capital’s mayor

The Pacific territory of New Caledonia is “under siege”, the mayor of its capital has said, following days of rioting that has left six people dead.

Nouméa mayor Sonia Lagarde said numerous 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 getting back to calm”.

French gendarmes have launched a major operation to regain control of a 60km (37-mile) road between Nouméa and the airport, France’s interior minister said.

The unrest began last week after lawmakers in Paris voted through changes that will allow more French residents to vote in local elections, a move indigenous leaders say will dilute the political influence of native people.

Officials said a sixth person was killed and two were injured during an exchange of gunfire at a makeshift roadblock in the north of the territory on Saturday.

Three indigenous Kanak residents, aged 17 to 36, and two police officers were previously confirmed to have been killed.

More than 200 people have so far been arrested and around 1,000 extra officers have been sent to join the 1,700 personnel already in the territory.

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

Authorities have declared a state of emergency involving a night-time curfew as well as a ban on public gatherings, alcohol sales, and the carrying of weapons.

Speaking to French news channel BFMTV, Ms Lagarde said the last two nights had been calmer, but that the situation during the daytimes was not improving.

“Quite the contrary, despite all the calls for calm,” she said.

She said it was “impossible” to quantify the damage already done 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 is desolation.”

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 canisters exploding inside a burning building.

Helene, 42, who has been guarding makeshift barricades in shifts with neighbours told AFP: “At night we hear shooting and things going off.”

With the closure of Noumea’s international airport due to safety concerns, an estimated 3,200 tourists and other travellers have been stranded inside or outside the archipelago, according to the AFP news agency.

Tourists inside the territory have described having to ration supplies while they wait for a way to leave.

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

“The kids are definitely hungry because we don’t really have much option of what we can feed them,” she said.

“We don’t know how long we’re going to be here for.”

On Sunday, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters said in a statement that his country’s defence forces had “completed preparations” for flights to “bring home New Zealanders in New Caledonia while commercial services are not operating”.

The opposition to the changes in the law has attracted support in France, with a solidarity protest taking place in Toulouse on Saturday and Kanak flags among those being flown at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris.

The unrest has also renewed diplomatic tensions between France and Azerbaijan, which grew last year following Azerbaijan’s seizure of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The region, which has an Armenian majority but lies within Azerbaijan, was the subject of a long-running dispute in which France had backed Armenia.

On Friday, French government agency Viginum, which monitors foreign digital interference, said it had detected a “massive and coordinated” online campaign pushing claims that French police officers had shot pro-independence demonstrators in New Caledonia.

The government alleged the involvement of “Azerbaijani actors” in the campaign, although Azerbaijan’s government has rejected the claims.

Social media app TikTok has now been blocked in the territory.

New Caledonia has held three referendums on independence. The first two showed slim majorities for 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.

Stay informed with The Namibian – your source for credible journalism. Get in-depth reporting and opinions for only N$85 a month. Invest in journalism, invest in democracy –
Subscribe Now!

Latest News