Published: 10:52, May 21, 2024 | Updated: 18:23, May 21, 2024
Australia, New Zealand send evacuation flights to New Caledonia
By Reuters
A burnt truck is seen with graffiti against French gendarmes in the Normandy industrial zone in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 20, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON - Australia and New Zealand began evacuating nationals from New Caledonia on Tuesday, with government planes arriving in the French territory which has experienced a week of deadly riots, sparked by electoral changes by the French government in Paris.

France's High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday the airport remains closed for commercial flights, and it will deploy the military to protect public buildings.

There were around 3,200 people waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia as commercial flights were canceled due to the unrest that broke out last week, the local government has said.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a social media post on Tuesday that clearance had been received for two "Australian government assisted-departure flights today for Australian and other tourists to depart New Caledonia"

New Zealand, Japanese and some Australian tourists had left with consular officials to travel to the domestic airport, staff and tourists at one Noumea hotel said on Tuesday afternoon.

READ MORE: Protestors block New Caledonia roads as French police pour in

Australian officials said passengers are being prioritized based on need. Those left behind are frustrated, said Australian Benen Huntley, honeymooning with wife Emily, and among a dozen Australians remaining at the hotel who don't know when they can leave.

"My wife is quite upset, we just want to get home," he said in a telephone interview.

"We opened our hotel door this morning and you could just see an enormous billow of smoke coming off a building in the distance."

Queueing to buy bread, the Adelaide couple had seen dozens of gendarmes guarding a petrol station.

Over 1,000 gendarmes and police from France were at work, and another 600 personnel would be added, France's High Commission said.

The commission asked French residents who normally live outside New Caledonia to register their details for support to return home.

READ MORE: France sends more police to New Caledonia to try to restore calm

"New Zealanders in New Caledonia have faced a challenging few days - and bringing them home has been an urgent priority for the government," New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters said. Further flights will be sent in coming days, he added.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a social media post on Tuesday that clearance had been received for two "Australian government assisted-departure flights today for Australian and other tourists to depart New Caledonia".

The exterior of a Carrefour supermarket is seen partially burnt in Koutio, Dumbea in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 20, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Six people have been killed and the unrest has left a trail of burnt businesses and cars and looted shops, with road barricades restricting access to medicine and food. The business chamber said 150 companies had been looted and burnt.

Three of six people killed in the unrest were young Kanaks shot by armed civilians, and there have been confrontations between Kanak protesters and armed self-defense groups or civilian militias formed to protect themselves, France's High Commission previously said

Protests erupted last week, sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak people over a constitutional amendment approved in France that would change who is allowed to participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

Viro Xulue, part of a community group providing social assistance to other Kanaks amid the crisis, said it felt like a return to the civil war of the 1980s, and people were scared.

ALSO READ: Australians stranded in New Caledonia 'running out of food' amid civil unrest

"We are really scared about the police, the French soldiers, and we are scared about the anti-Kanak militia terrorist group," Xulue told Reuters in a video interview.

Three of six people killed in the unrest were young Kanaks shot by armed civilians, and there have been confrontations between Kanak protesters and armed self-defense groups or civilian militias formed to protect themselves, France's High Commission previously said.

ALSO READ: 4 dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

"The French Government doesn't know how to control people here. They send more than 2,000 military to control, but it's fail," Xulue said.

Pro-independence political parties say they want the French government to withdraw the electoral reform before they restart talks, while France said re-establishing order was a precondition to dialogue.