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New Caledonia unrest: Death toll rises to six as France deploys more troops

A street blocked by debris and burnt-out items following overnight unrest in the Magenta district of Noumea before French marines and security forces started patrolling the area located in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. (Photo by AFP)

The death toll has risen to six and hundreds more have been injured as protests and riots entered a fifth day in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia.

Gendarmerie Chief General Nicolas Mattheos said on Saturday that one person was killed and two more injured in an exchange of gunfire in the archipelago’s northern Kaala-Gomen area.

The latest casualties were also male, an informed source told the media.

Since Monday, two gendarmes have been killed, one shot in the head and a second shot in friendly fire, as well as three others -- all Indigenous Kanaks -- a 17-year-old and two men aged 20 and 36.

At least 60 members of the security forces have been injured in the latest unrest, prompting Paris to send reinforcements.

Hundreds of heavily armed French marines and police have been running patrols through the debris-filled streets of the capital Noumea to suppress protests.

Local residents reported hearing the sounds of gunshots, drones, and “massive explosions” at night.

Annie, 81, reported hearing loud explosions during the night. She also said that this 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.”

On Thursday, security forces arrested 214 people. 

A state of emergency was announced on Friday and reinforcements were flown in from France to quell protests across the archipelago.

With a population of about 270,000, the territory's Indigenous population has long sought independence from France.

New Caledonia has been a French colony for about two centuries and tensions have simmered for decades between the Kanaks, who seek independence and the descendants of colonists who want it to remain part of France.

It consists of a group of Pacific islands east of Australia, is 10 time zones ahead of Paris, and known to attract tourists for its UNESCO World Heritage atolls and reefs.

The latest 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 President Emmanuel Macron canceled a video conference with local political leaders for lack of willing participants.

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

Tourism is a main source of income for New Caledonia. However, tourists and regular travelers have been stranded inside or outside the archipelago after Noumea’s international airport was temporarily closed due to unrest.

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