Australia and New Zealand evacuate scores of their citizens from New Caledonia

In this photo released by New Zealand Defence Force, New Zealand tourists line up as they prepare to board a RNZAF hercules at Magenta Airport in Noumea, New Caledonia, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Australia and New Zealand have sent airplanes to New Caledonia to begin bringing home stranded citizens from the violence-wracked French South Pacific territory. - New Zealand Defence Force Department via AP

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) - The Australian military has flown 115 passengers on two flights from the restive French Pacific territory of New Caledonia and a French government flight was expected to evacuate another 100 stranded passengers on Wednesday, an Australian government minister said.

Six people have been killed, including two police officers, and hundreds have been injured during recent armed clashes, looting and arson in New Caledonia.

The unrest erupted May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia voter lists. Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to land Thursday in New Caledonia, where Indigenous people have long sought independence. The unrest has raised new questions about Macron’s handling of France’s colonial legacy.

Australian citizens accounted for 84 of the passengers who were flown on two Royal Australian Airforce C-130 Hercules from the capital Noumea to the Australian east coast city of Brisbane late Tuesday, Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said.

Conroy did not say what nationalities were among the remaining 31 passengers. But he said Australia had reciprocal arrangements with Canada and Japan to help their citizens in crises.

More than 200 other Australians were registered with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to leave the South Pacific territory, where a 12-day state of emergency has been declared.

"We’ve prioritized the elderly, the pregnant and the most vulnerable,” Conroy told Nine Network television.

"We’ll continue to work with the French government to make sure we get every Australian out of New Caledonia who does want to leave,” Conroy added.

Conroy said he had been advised France was planning more flights to Brisbane on Wednesday.

"The French have indicated they intend to continue repatriating foreign nationals, particularly tourists so the primary plan is more French flights but ... we do have contingency plans and we do have planes on standby should there be an issue with that course of action,” Conroy later told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"A French plane is expected to leave for Brisbane this afternoon or this evening and we expect around 100 Australians to be on it,” Conroy added.

A New Zealand Defense Force C-130 Hercules flew 48 passengers "with the most pressing needs” from Noumea to the New Zealand city of Auckland on Tuesday night, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement.

A French-operated flight would bring stranded New Zealanders home via Brisbane later Wednesday, the statement said. The New Zealand military would fly the Brisbane-Auckland leg. Around 265 New Zealanders wanted to leave New Caledonia.

Australian tourist Malisa Plesa said she had hoped to be evacuated by the Australian air force on Tuesday but remained in a Noumeau hotel on Wednesday.

"We didn’t actually receive any notification that we wouldn’t be on those flights. We were basically told to standby all day because we could be provided with 20 minutes notice to get on one of these flights,” Plesa told Nine.

"However at about 9 p.m. last night we received communications saying that the French authorities will now be coordinating the evacuation of all tourists that still remain within New Caledonia so for us I think that means that we don’t know when we’ll be able to get home,” she added.

Australian tourist Fadi Chemali had been aboard the first Australian military flight to Brisbane.

"Everyone clapped once we landed, we were all just so happy,” he said at Brisbane Airport.

Chemali had been on vacation with his wife and young daughter for a week before the riots broke out and spent eight days scrambling to find a way home.

"I didn’t see any of the violence up close but we heard a lot, including gunshots from where we were. It has been fairly intense,” Chamali said.

The road to New Caledonia's international airport remained closed on Wednesday. - AP

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