June 16, 2024

French forces smash roadblocks in bid to clear key New Caledonia road

French forces smashed through about 60 road blocks to clear the way from conflict-stricken New Caledonia’s capital to the airport but have still not reopened the route, a top government official said Sunday.

And after six nights of violence that has left six dead and hundreds injured, security forces will launch “harrassment” raids to reclaim other parts of the Pacific territory, the French government representative in New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, said in a televised address. 

“Republican order will be re-established whatever the cost,” Le Franc, the central government’s high commissioner, warned radicals behind the violence.

The Pacific archipelago of 270,000 people has been convulsed by unrest since Monday, sparked by French plans to impose new voting rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights.

The territory has long suffered from ethnic tensions and opposition to French rule by Kanak groups.

Authorities said 600 heavily armed police took part in an operation Sunday to retake the 60-kilometre (40-mile) main road from Noumea to the airport that has been closed to commercial flights since the unrest erupted.

The local government estimates around 3,200 people are either stuck in New Caledonia or unable to return there from abroad since flights have been cancelled.

Australia and New Zealand have been pressing France for clearance to launch evacuation flights for their citizens.

Le Franc said about 60 roadblocks put up by pro-independence groups had been “broken through” without violence.

But the official added that the route was full of wrecks of cars, burned wood and metal which had only been cleared at 15 of the roadblocks. Le Franc said the road was also damaged in several places.

AFP journalists on the road found some roadblocks had been re-established by separatists, although they were eventually able to reach the airport.

Le Franc said police units would launch “harrassment operations” in coming hours to retake “hardcore” areas in Noumea and the towns of Dumbea and Paita.

“It is going to intensify in coming days” in zones held by independence activists, said Le Franc. “If they want to use their arms, they will be risking the worst.”

“I want to tell the rioters: stop, return to calm, give up your arms,” added Le Franc, saying the crisis remained “unprecedented” and “grave”.

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