'Shots fired' at security forces in New Caledonia riots

A burned-out car showroom in Noumea, the New Caledonia capital. [AFP]

New Caledonia's high commissioner said Tuesday that shots had been fired at security forces during a night of riots in the French Pacific territory that saw vehicles torched and shops looted.

"There have been no deaths," High Commissioner of the Republic Louis Le Franc told reporters, adding that "shots were fired at the gendarmes using high calibre weapons and hunting rifles".

Authorities in the French-run archipelago announced a night-time curfew Tuesday and a ban on public gatherings after protests against proposed voting reforms that have angered separatists.

At least two car dealerships and a bottling factory in the capital Noumea were set on fire in arson attacks, an AFP journalist saw.

Several supermarkets were also looted in Noumea and the neighbouring towns of Dumbea and Mont-Dore.

"The police station nearby was on fire and a car was too, in front of my house. There was non-stop shouting and explosions, I felt like I was in a war," said Sylvie, whose family has lived in New Caledonia for several generations.

"We are alone. Who is going to protect us?" she told AFP, asking to be identified only by her first name.

From late Monday night, groups of young masked or hooded demonstrators took over several roundabouts and confronted police, who responded with non-lethal rounds.

A police source said several vehicles were torched during violent clashes.

A total of 36 people were arrested and 30 police officers injured, according to authorities.

"Very intense public order disturbances took place last night in Noumea and in neighbouring municipalities, and are still ongoing at this time," the high commission, the representative of the French state in New Caledonia, said in a statement Tuesday.

The commission said it was "massively mobilising internal security and civil security forces" over the unrest but "no serious injuries were reported among the population".

The New Caledonia government appealed for "reason and calm" and called on "all Caledonians to demonstrate a sense of responsibility" following the night of unrest.

Frozen voter lists

The unrest erupted Monday as protesters demonstrated against a constitutional reform being debated in the national assembly in Paris that aims to expand the electorate in the territory's provincial elections.

France vowed in the Noumea Accord of 1998 to gradually give more political power to the Pacific island territory of nearly 300,000 people.

Under the agreement, New Caledonia has held three referendums over its ties with France, all rejecting independence.

The pro-independence Indigenous Kanaks rejected the result of the last referendum held in December 2021, which they boycotted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Noumea Accord has also meant that New Caledonia's voter lists have not been updated since 1998 -- meaning that island residents who have arrived from mainland France or elsewhere anytime in the past 25 years do not have the right to take part in provincial polls.

The French government has branded the exclusion of one out of five people from voting as "absurd", while separatists fear that expanding voter lists would benefit pro-France politicians and "further minimise the Indigenous Kanak people".

After a night of unrest, the New Caledonia high commission announced a ban on public gatherings and the sale of alcohol and said a curfew would be imposed from 6:00 pm Tuesday until 6:00 am Wednesday.

"The high commissioner calls on the population to stay at home and limit their travel in the coming hours."

Schools and colleges are closed until further notice and the international airport is also shut.

"I feel sad," Jean-Franck Jallet, who owns a butcher shop that firefighters managed to rescue from the flames. "I thought it was possible for us (islanders) to live side by side, but it hasn't worked. There are too many lies."

New Zealand said Tuesday that Foreign Minister Winston Peters had cancelled his visit to New Caledonia due to the unrest.

"In discussions with our French and New Caledonian hosts, we have decided to postpone this week's travel to Noumea to allow authorities to fully focus on the current situation," his spokesperson said in a statement.

During a visit to the territory last year, President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted a revised constitutional status for New Caledonia to be in place by the beginning of 2024.

Macron has been seeking to reassert his country's importance in the Pacific region, where China and the United States are vying for influence but France has territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

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