Hundreds arrested, roads barricaded in New Caledonia as riots continue
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Hundreds arrested, roads barricaded in New Caledonia as riots continue

Riots continue in response to controversial changes in constitution

A fire breaks out next to Dumbea Mall in Koutio, Dumbea, New Caledonia, May 15, 2024 in this picture obtained from social media. (Reuters)
A fire breaks out next to Dumbea Mall in Koutio, Dumbea, New Caledonia, May 15, 2024 in this picture obtained from social media. (Reuters)

SYDNEY - Armed forces were protecting New Caledonia's two airports and port after a third night of violent riots that have killed four people, the Pacific Island's top French official said on Thursday morning, adding at least four alleged instigators were under house arrest.

In three municipalities on the French-ruled island, gendarmes faced about 5,000 rioters, including between 3,000 and 4,000 in the capital Noumea, France's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said in a televised press conference.

Two hundred people have been arrested, and 64 gendarmes and police injured, while road barricades put up by the protesters were causing a "dire situation" for medicine and food for the population, he added.

France declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia that came in force at 5am local time (1800 GMT Wednesday), giving authorities additional powers to ban gatherings and forbid people from moving around the island.

Police reinforcements adding 500 officers to the 1,800 usually present on the island, have been sent after rioters torched vehicles and businesses and looted stores.

Noumea resident Yoan Fleurot told Reuters in a Zoom interview that he has seen looting and destruction of properties. Some storeowners willingly let their shelves be raided, pleading that their shops not be destroyed, he said.

Fleurot said he is armed with a 16-caliber gun and has video surveillance installed around his house, adding he has only ventured out in daylight to check on his parents or his properties.

The roadblocks were difficult to pass through, and he been subjected to insults and threats of violence, he said.

"I am New Caledonian, but I no longer know my country anymore," he said.

"Caledonia will have a hard time recovering from this crisis... Everything, 80%, is destroyed," he added.

A road is barricaded by rioters as they protest against plans to allow more people to take part in local elections in the French-ruled territory, which indigenous Kanak protesters reject, in Noumea, New Caledonia, on Tuesday. (Reuters)

Main and secondary roads in Noumea were blocked by barricades with burning cars and car carcasses, some with booby traps with gas bottles and ignition systems, French official Le Franc said.

"I am calling on those at the head of the CCAT to stop these actions, which are murderous, deadly actions that can leave families in mourning," he said, referring to the Field Action Co-ordination Cell (CCAT), which organised the protests that began on Monday.

He said CCAT was "an organisation of thugs which engages in acts of violence", and differentiated it from the main pro-independence party, FLNKS, and other pro-independence political groups.

FLNKS has condemned the violence and called for dialogue to resolve the situation.

There were also confrontations overnight between active members of CCAT and self-defence groups or militias which were formed to protect themselves, he said, adding the militia are also in breach of the curfew and the ban on carrying weapons.

Rioting broke out over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that will let French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections - a move some local leaders fear will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

Three young Kanak have died in the riots, and a 24-year-old police official died from a gunshot wound.

A state of emergency will last for 12 days and authorities have also banned video app TikTok.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France's role in the mineral-rich island, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) east of Australia.

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