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New Caledonia separatists defy French efforts to unblock roads

New Caledonia separatists defy French efforts to unblock roads
A slogan referring to French loyalist President of the South Province Sonia Backes is seen on a barricade since abandoned in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 20, 2024. - (Photo by Theo Rouby / AFP)

Separatists in riot-hit New Caledonia refused Monday to abandon road blocks that have paralysed the Pacific archipelago for a week in defiance of a major security operation by French forces.

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France has sent 1,000 security forces to its overseas territory that has been rocked by seven nights of violence that have left six dead, including two gendarmes, and hundreds injured.

President Emmanuel Macron prepared to chair a new meeting of his defence and security council on Monday.

The latest unrest in the Pacific territory of 270,000 people erupted over French plans to impose new rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights.

Some 600 heavily armed French police and paramilitaries "neutralised" 76 road blocks on the 60-kilometre (40-mile) route between the capital Noumea and La Tontouta International Airport, officials said.

But pro-independence, largely indigenous Kanak activists, vowed they would not give up. AFP journalists said some road blocks taken down by security forces were being rebuilt even bigger by pro-independence forces.

A pickup truck drove through one Noumea suburb with about 10 masked and hooded men wielding machetes, AFP correspondents saw.

Anti-riot blast balls, often used to release tear gas or pepper spray, could be heard in one Noumea suburb. Fire reduced one construction firm's building to cinders.

"It feels like being in The Walking Dead," said local post office director Thomas de Deckker, referring to the post-apocalyptic zombie television series.

"We have no visibility of when we will have security again," he told AFP.

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Airport to remain closed 

Noumea airport will remain closed to commercial flights until Thursday despite requests from Australia and New Zealand to evacuate their nationals, the airport managers said.

Military aircraft carrying the remains of two gendarmes killed in New Caledonia landed in France early Monday.

Hailing Sunday's operation as a "success", the French government office in New Caledonia said forces would remove burned-out vehicles littering the key airport route for essential food and material supplies.

But the Ground Action Coordination Cell, or CCAT, said it was "maintaining" barricades in place. Some CCAT leaders are under house arrest on suspicion of organising the troubles.

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Roadblocks would be closed to all vehicles during night curfews except for health emergencies and firefighters, the group said in a statememnt.

Indigenous Kanaks had suffered from discrimination for too long, it said. The group insisted it sought a peaceful resolution but criticised the French "colonial state" plan to expand voting rights.

'The islands are on fire' 

"The islands are on fire, for sure, but we have to remember that they tried to be heard for a long time and it led to nothing," said one resident, Laloua Savea.

"It had to degenerate for the state to see us, for the politicians to see us," she said.

Authorities say about 230 people have been detained while an estimated 3,200 people are stuck in New Caledonia or unable to return to the archipelago, which lies more than 1,000 kilometres (800 miles) east of Australia.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal is considering extending the state of emergency -- under which the curfew was imposed and TikTok banned -- beyond its initial 12 days. That would require the approval of both houses in the French parliament.

On Monday, the New Caledonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) said the troubles had caused "catastrophic" economic damage. It said 150 businesses have been "looted and set on fire."

Divide over vote reform

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

Almost two centuries on, its politics remain dominated by debate about whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent -- with opinions split roughly along ethnic lines.

Indigenous Kanaks make up about 40 percent of the population but tend to be poorer. Kanak groups say the latest voting regulations would dilute the indigenous vote.

The government heads in four other French overseas territories -- La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and French Guiana in South America -- on Sunday called for the voting reform to be withdrawn.

Civil liberties groups have challenged the TikTok ban, with a hearing scheduled at France's top administrative court in Paris for Tuesday.

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