France says will quell New Caledonia riots ‘whatever the cost’

Warns new raids on independence strongholds would be staged

NOUMEA   -   French forces smashed through dozens of barricades in a bid to retake the main road to New Caledonia’s airport and a top official said Sunday that Paris would reclaim all of the Pacific territory from independence militants “whatever the cost”.

After six nights of violence that have left six dead and hundreds injured, French government high commissioner Louis Le Franc warned in a televised address that new raids on independence strongholds would be staged.

“Republican order will be re-established whatever the cost,” Le Franc said, adding that if separatists “want to use their arms, they will be risking the worst”.

New Caledonia, with a population of about 270,000, has been convulsed by unrest since Monday, sparked by French plans to impose new rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights.

The French territory off northeastern Australia has long been riven by pro-independence tensions. But this is the worst violence in decades. Protesters have set vehicles, businesses and public buildings alight and taken control of the main road to La Tontouta International Airport that has been closed to commercial flights. Authorities say about 230 people have been detained while an estimated 3,200 people are either stuck in New Caledonia or unable to return to the archipelago. Australia and New Zealand have pressed France for clearance to evacuate their citizens. France says about 1,000 security forces have been sent to the islands.

Some 600 heavily armed police and paramilitaries took part in an operation Sunday to retake the 60-kilometre (40-mile) main road from the capital Noumea to the airport, authorities said.

Forces with armoured vehicles “broke through” around 60 barricades on the road with only minor clashes, Le Franc said.

But heaps of burned cars, wood and scrap metal in place at about 40 barricades would only be removed on Monday and Tuesday. The road has also been badly damaged, the official said.

The highway is needed to restore supply chains as the archipelago faces shortages of items from groceries to blood for transfusions. “We are starting to run short of food,” Le Franc said.

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