Australia, New Zealand send evacuation flights to New Caledonia

By Thomson Reuters May 20, 2024 | 7:45 PM

By Kirsty Needham and Lucy Craymer

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Australia and New Zealand said they will send government planes to New Caledonia on Tuesday to evacuate nationals from 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 cancelled due to the unrest that broke out last week, the local government has said.

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

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.

New Zealand, French and Australian foreign ministers held a call on Monday evening, after New Zealand and Australia said they were waiting for clearance from French authorities to send defence aircraft to evacuate tourists.

A meeting of France’s defence council later agreed for arrangements to allow tourists to return home.

“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.

“We want to acknowledge the support of relevant authorities, both in Paris and Nouméa, in facilitating this flight,” he added. 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”.

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.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lucy Craymer; Editing by Michael Perry)