New Caledonia closes airport, imposes curfew after violence

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FILE PHOTO: New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council with Indo-Pacific partners at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium April 4, 2024. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Pool/File Photo

Wellington (Reuters) -New Caledonia mobilised security forces, closed its international airport and imposed a curfew in the capital after protests turned violent and police were attacked, the French High Commission said on Tuesday.

New Caledonia’s government called for calm and condemned the destruction of property.

“Every reason for discontent, frustration and anger could not justify undermining or destroying what the country has been able to build for decades and mortgaging the future,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

Video showed the police patrolling the streets among burnt-out cars and plumes of smoke, after protesters had set up blockades on key roads on Monday.

The protests and violence happened on Monday ahead of debate on Tuesday in the French National Assembly on changes to the New Caledonian constitution.

The proposed changes would allow more French residents to vote in New Caledonia elections, which independence supporters fear will dilute the vote of indigenous Kanak.

New Caledonia President Louis Mapou was elected in 2021 as the first pro-independence indigenous Kanak leader.

Elections for New Caledonia’s assemblies and congress due in May have been delayed until the end of the year.

“We hope that our voice, our dignity and our pride of being the people of Kanaky, will be heard by the General Assembly,” one protestor said.

The French High Commission said in a statement that significant disturbances in the capital, Noumea, and surrounding townships were ongoing, and numerous buildings including shops, pharmacies and car dealerships were damaged. So far 36 people had been arrested.

It said security forces had been mobilised, all gatherings had been banned in the greater Noumea area, and a liquor ban had been put in place.

The curfew would be imposed from 6 p.m. (0700 GMT) on Tuesday until 6 a.m. on Wednesday in Noumea.

The international airport in Noumea had been closed and all commercial flights cancelled, the airport operator said in a statement on Tuesday.

One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the centrepiece of French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase its influence in the Pacific.

The nickel-rich territory is 20,000 km (12,427 miles) from France, with a population of 270,000 including 41% Melanesian and 24% of European origin, mostly French.

A 1998 Noumea Accord helped end a decade of conflict that resulted in 80 deaths by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the indigenous Kanak and migrants living in New Caledonia since 1998.

France wants to open voting rights to migrants who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years.

The unrest prompted New Zealand to postpone a visit this week by Foreign Minister Winston Peters, which a spokesperson said would allow authorities to focus on the current situation.

“We are aware of events in New Caledonia, and hope that peace and calm will prevail,” the spokesperson said.

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