Troops from France try to restore order in crisis-hit New Caledonia

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Hundreds of French security personnel tried to restore order in the Pacific island territory of New Caledonia on Saturday, after a fifth night of riots, looting and unrest.

Bands of heavily armed French marines and police patrolled the capital Noumea, where streets were filled with debris from another night of violence that had already killed five people and injured hundreds.

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AFP reporters in the city’s Magenta district saw vehicles and buildings burned, with a phalanx of riot police trying to reassert government control.

Overnight, residents reported hearing gunfire, the drone of helicopter rotors and “massive explosions” -- what seemed to be gas canisters blowing up inside a building that was set alight.

Helene, aged 42, told AFP that she and neighbors had been manning makeshift barricades in two-to-three-hour shifts, as they waited for thousands of French security forces being flown 17,000 kilometers (10,600 miles) to impose order.

“At night we hear shooting, and things going off,” she said. “Helicopters and army planes landing -- which is sweet music to our ears.”

For almost a week, the usually unhurried oceanside city has been convulsed.

Two gendarmes have been killed: one shot in the head and a second shot in friendly fire, officials said.

Three other people -- all Indigenous Kanaks -- have also been killed: a 17-year-old and two men aged 20 and 36.

The unrest has been blamed on economic malaise, social tensions and -- above all -- a political fight between mostly Indigenous pro-independence activists and Paris authorities.

Paris has accused a separatist group known as CCAT of being behind the riots.

Ten independence activists have been placed under house arrest, according to authorities, who accuse them of organizing the violence.

On Friday CCAT issued a statement calling for “a time of calm to break the spiral of violence”.

Despite that call, 81-year-old Noumea resident Annie also reported hearing loud explosions during the night.

She said the week’s violence was worse than during the tumultuous 1980s, a time of politically motivated killings and hostage-taking euphemistically referred to as “The Events”.

“It’s worse than during The Events,” she said. “At the time, there weren’t as many weapons.”

‘Out of our hands’

New Caledonia has been French territory since colonization in the late 1800s.

Politics remain dominated by debate about whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent -- with opinions split roughly along ethnic lines.

The latest cycle of violence was sparked by plans in Paris to impose new voting rules that could give tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents voting rights.

Pro-independence groups say that would dilute the vote of Indigenous Kanaks, who make up about 40 percent of the population.

French authorities have called for talks and insist the situation is now “calmer” and being brought under control.

“Reinforcements will control areas that have got out of our hands in recent days,” said high commissioner Louis Le Franc, the highest-ranking state official in New Caledonia.

They began landing Thursday at the French army-controlled La Tontouta International Airport and could be seen moving through Noumea in red berets, toting rifles, gas masks and riot shields.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said Thursday that about 1,000 extra security forces were being deployed -- adding to the 1,700 already present.

President Emmanuel Macron cancelled a video conference with local political leaders Thursday for lack of willing participants, but began contacting pro- and anti-independence officials individually on Friday, his office said.

Low supplies

In Noumea, hundreds of people lined up outside shops, hoping to secure desperately needed food and supplies.

“Do your shopping in 10 minutes, to allow everyone to get supplies!” said one attendant ushering customers into a supermarket in Magenta on Saturday.

Helene said the economic situation had become more fraught in recent years and the week’s unrest would only make things worse.

“A lot of people are leaving, work is getting scarce. It’s not the expats, or people who have big businesses here who are at risk. It’s mostly the people who don’t have much already,” she said.

“It’s going to take a few years to rebuild everything.”

A local business group estimated the damage, concentrated around Noumea, at 200 million euros ($217 million).

On Friday, a French government agency, Viginum, said it detected a “massive and coordinated” online campaign pushing claims that French police had shot pro-independence demonstrators in New Caledonia.

The government pointed to the involvement of “Azerbaijani actors” in the campaign, deepening a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

France has accused Azerbaijan of political interference in its Pacific territory, but Baku has denied the claims.

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