June 16, 2024

Australia, NZ to begin New Caledonia evacuations

Australia and New Zealand say they have received clearance to send planes to New Caledonia to pick up travelers stranded after unrest shut down the international airport.

Australia is deploying two planes on Tuesday to evacuate some of the 300 of its citizens who have registered for assistance in the French Pacific territory.

The first of “a series” of proposed flights will also leave New Zealand and bring about 50 people home, the government in Wellington 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.

Four civilians — including at least three indigenous Kanak residents — have been killed in riots along with two police officers.

Dozens more have been injured and more than 200 people have so far been arrested.

Both Australia and New Zealand said they would prioritize flying out those with the most “pressing need”, with passenger lists being organized by consular staff.

Tourists from “other countries” would also be assisted, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said.

As well as witnessing fires and looting, holidaymakers who have been stuck for more than a week have reported food shortages.

“The situation in New Caledonia remains dynamic, and New Zealand officials are continuing to work with French counterparts and other partners especially Australia to understand what is needed to ensure the safety of our people there,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said.

Around 290 New Zealanders are believed to be in New Caledonia.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester told AFP that he and and his wife Tiffany were “ecstatic” at the prospect of getting home after being confined to a resort near Nouméa for over a week.

“We realize we probably won’t get on these flights, because those who have higher needs will get on them, but we at least know we have a way out in the next few days,” he said.

The French High Commission in New Caledonia says French gendarmes trying to take back control of the 60km (37 mile) road between Nouméa and La Tontouta International have “neutralized” 76 roadblocks and are now clearing debris such as burnt-out vehicles.

Travel advice by the Australian government has warned people not to try and get to the airport themselves saying the route “is not yet considered safe”.

The airport remains closed for commercial flights, and a decision on when to reopen it will be reassessed on Thursday, the local government said.

It has estimated that about 3,200 people are waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia.

France has flown in 1,050 extra police to boost security in the territory, with a further 600 reinforcements to arrive “in the coming hours”, France’s High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday.

The military is being deployed to protect public buildings, it added.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the military would need to remain deployed in New Caledonia “for some time”.

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