French troops try to restore order in crisis-hit New Caledonia

NOUMEA – Hundreds of French security personnel tried to restore order in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 18, 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 has already killed five people and injured hundreds.

AFP reporters in the city’s Magenta district saw vehicles and buildings burned, with a phalanx of riot police on the scene 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.

For days Helene, aged 42, has been manning makeshift barricades with neighbours, taking two-to-three-hour shifts as they wait for thousands of French security forces being flown 17,000km to impose order.

“At night we hear shooting, and things going off,” she told AFP. “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.

French officials have accused a separatist group known as CCAT of being behind the riots.

Ten activists accused of organising the violence have been placed under house arrest, according to authorities.

The territory is “on a destructive path” warned local minister Vaimu’a Muliava Saturday, telling those involved “you are only punishing yourselves.”

CCAT on May 17 called for “a time of calm to break the spiral of violence”.

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

She said the week’s violence was worse than that seen during the tumultuous 1980s, a time of political 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.”

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