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Sixth fatality reported in New Caledonia violence

French gendarmes patrol the streets in Noumea, New Caledonia, Thursday May, 16, 2024.
French gendarmes patrol the streets in Noumea, New Caledonia, Thursday May, 16, 2024. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Daniel Bellamy with AP
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French security forces reported another death in armed clashes in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Saturday, the sixth fatality in nearly a week of violent unrest.

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The person was killed in an exchange of fire at one of the many impromptu barricades blocking roads on the island, according to a security official speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to discuss the situation publicly.

Two other people were seriously injured in the violence, the official said, confirming French media reports. The official said the firefight erupted at a blockade in the north of the main island, at Kaala-Gomen.

Noumea's mayor, Sonia Lagarde, said that while overnight violence has eased, ''we are far from a return to normal.''

France has imposed a 11 day state of emergency in the archipelago following protests over voting reforms backed by the government in Paris.

About 1,000 reinforcements for the security services were deployed with increased powers to quell unrest in New Caledonia, which has a population of about 270,000 and whose indigenous population has long sought independence.

French authorities there and at the interior ministry in Paris said that six people, including two police officers, have been killed since Monday.

At least 60 members of the security forces were injured, and 214 people were arrested over clashes with police, arson and looting on Thursday. Two members of the island’s Indigenous Kanak community were among those killed.

High Commissioner Louis Le Franc announced stringent measures Friday under the state of emergency, which will run for at least 11 days, with a curfew in effect from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. French military forces were deployed to protect ports and airports and free up police troops.

“Exceptions to this curfew include essential public service personnel, urgent medical travel, and critical night-time activities,” Le Franc said. He added that curfew violations would result in penalties of up to six months in prison and a fine.

Speaking to broadcaster BFM-TV, Lagarde described the damage caused as ''incredible''.

''It’s a spectacle of desolation. The situation is not improving — quite the contrary — despite all the appeals for calm,'' she said, describing the capital, Noumea as ''under siege''.  

French security force embarking a plane to New Caledonia, Thursday, May 16, 2024 at the Istres military base in France
French security force embarking a plane to New Caledonia, Thursday, May 16, 2024 at the Istres military base in FranceAP/AP

The Pacific island group east of Australia, 10 time zones ahead of Paris, is known to tourists for its UNESCO World Heritage atolls and reefs. Tensions have simmered for decades between the Kanaks, who seek independence and the descendants of colonists who want it to remain part of France.

People of European descent in New Caledonia, which has long served as France’s prison colony and now has a French military base, distinguish between descendants of colonists and those who trace their ancestry to the prisoners sent to the territory by force.

Le Franc announced that reinforcements would focus on regaining control of areas in the territorial capital, Noumea, that remain out of control, including Kamere, Montravel, and parts of La Vallee du Tir.

“Reinforcements will be arriving to control the areas that have escaped us in recent days,” he said.

Despite a measure of calm, violence continued in some areas, with fires set on Thursday night at a school and two businesses. Hundreds of extra military and police have arrived in New Caledonia, where roads are littered with debris, and armoured vehicles patrol the streets. It is the worst outbreak of violence in New Caledonia since the 1980s, with palm-lined boulevards in Noumea turned into battlegrounds.

Le Franc announced that a murder suspect surrendered to authorities on Friday, with others still being sought. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said that about 1,000 extra security forces would be sent to New Caledonia, adding to the 1,700 already present, and authorities would push for “the harshest penalties for rioters and looters.”

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said TikTok had been banned because it was being used by protesters, a decision the social media company called “regrettable.”

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Thierry de Greslan, a representative from the hospital in Noumea, expressed concern over the deteriorating situation, worsened by roadblocks in the city.

“We estimate that three or four people may have died due to lack of access to medical care,” de Greslan said. He added that around 50 dialysis patients had been unable to receive their treatments.

“We are having great difficulty bringing our patients and health care workers in. Teams have been working since Monday and are exhausted,” he said.

The number of visits to emergency rooms dropped significantly, with a 50% decrease recently and an 80% reduction on Thursday.

“We are in an urban guerrilla situation with nightly gunshot wounds,” de Greslan said.

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The hospital’s operating rooms are running around the clock, and while the staff is prepared for immediate crises, de Greslan expressed concern about the future.

“We are ready to face this, but I worry about the ‘rebound’ effect on patients not currently receiving care and who are extremely stressed,” he said.

French lawmakers approved changes to the French Constitution on Tuesday that would allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections. Independence supporters argue that this change would further marginalise the Kanak community, which makes up about 40% of the population.

The voting reform must still be approved by a joint session of both houses of the French parliament. Macron has indicated that lawmakers will vote to adopt the constitutional change by the end of June unless New Caledonia’s opposing sides can strike a new deal.

A videoconference between Macron and New Caledonian lawmakers planned for Thursday was cancelled as “the different players did not want to speak to one another,” his office said.

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Meanwhile, authorities have detained about 200 of an estimated 5,000 rioters, and security forces placed five suspected independence activists accused of organising violence under house arrest. Sixty-four of the injured are police and security forces.

Darmanin also accused Azerbaijan of interference following visits by several independence leaders, a claim denied by the government in Baku.

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