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Australia, New Zealand begin airlifts from New Caledonia; Macron heads to islands

The first Australians arrive from New Caledonia at Brisbane International Airport on Tuesday amid an Australian government operation to repatriate its citizens and other tourists following deadly riots in the Pacific archipelago. France has declared a state of emergency and deployed its military to the territory's ports and international airport. Photo by David Clark/EPA-EFE/
The first Australians arrive from New Caledonia at Brisbane International Airport on Tuesday amid an Australian government operation to repatriate its citizens and other tourists following deadly riots in the Pacific archipelago. France has declared a state of emergency and deployed its military to the territory's ports and international airport. Photo by David Clark/EPA-EFE/

May 21 (UPI) -- Australia and New Zealand dispatched military flights to the French territory of New Caledonia in the Pacific on Tuesday to evacuate its citizens and tourists amid unrest that has killed at least six people.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a post on X that officials were contacting registered Australians after receiving clearance for "two government assisted-departure flights" for more than 300 Australians and other tourists to escape the territory.

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"Passengers are being prioritized based on need. We continue to work on further flights," Wong said.

Wong urged Australians who want to leave to register on the foreign ministry's crisis portal and anyone in need of emergency consular assistance to call its Consular Emergency Center.

The first Royal Australian Air Force aircraft departed New Caledonia bound for Brisbane shortly before 6 p.m. Canberra time with around 100 Australians on board.

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The first of a series of planned New Zealand government flights arrived safely at Auckland International Airport from Noumea late Tuesday local time with around 50 people on board.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules was dispatched to rescue those "with the most pressing needs" and fly them back to Auckland, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said in a news release earlier.

Passengers for subsequent flights being laid on in cooperation with Australia and France would be prioritized by consular staff.

"New Zealanders in New Caledonia have faced a challenging few days -- and bringing them home has been an urgent priority for the government. We want to acknowledge the support of relevant authorities, both in Paris and Noumea, in facilitating this flight," said Peters.

He added that the situation in New Caledonia remained "dynamic" and that officials were continuing to work with French counterparts and other partners, Australia in particular, "to understand what is needed to ensure the safety of our people there."

New Zealanders are urged to update their SafeTravel details to allow officials to be in touch with further advice while those requiring immediate assistance should contact the 24/7 Consular Emergency line.

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The evacuations came as France announced President Emmanuel Macron would fly to Caledonia on Tuesday night to "set up a mission" a week after declaring a state of emergency in the islands after violence flared over proposed voting reforms opposed by indigenous Kanak people.

No further details on Macron's visit were provided.

Pro-independence Indigenous groups are angry about plans to permit more French residents to participate in elections that they say water down the votes of native people.

Relations between the French administration and indigenous people took a turn for worse in 2021 when Paris refused to postpone an independence referendum at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the isolated archipelago, prompting Kanaks to boycott the poll.

New Zealanders coming off the Royal New Zealand Air Force flight reported the situation was worst in the north of the capital, Noumea, with looting and dozens of barricades on the road to the airport.

"We can hear the gunfire, we can hear the explosions, we can smell the smoke," Nat Jones told the New Zealand Herald in a phone call ahead of the flight.

"I'm just a bit anxious because now is the scary bit. We're leaving the safe zone to go to the airport.

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"Yesterday, nurses were heading to work at the hospital and were hijacked by [men with] machetes during the day," she said.

She also reported empty shelves in shops and shortages of food.

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