French minister calls in mediators to end Maré strife

Published: Tue 9 Aug 2011 01:14 PM
French minister calls in mediators to end Maré strife after 4 die in clashes
By Patrick Antoine Decloitre
August 8, 2011
France’s Minister for Overseas Territories Marie-Luce Penchard is sending in mediators to Maré Island in New Caledonia’s north-eastern Loyalty Islands following armed indigenous clashes between rival clan factions that left 4 dead and 23 wounded at the weekend.
In a short statement to French media after a crisis meeting yesterday, Penchard said both conflicting sides and chiefly clans on Maré had agreed to the notion of religious envoys being sent there in the coming days in order to restore dialogue and prevent further outbreaks of armed violence.
The mediators are understood to be from outside the island and would also intervene on neutral ground.
She also said a long-term resolution of tensions arising from domestic airline Air Calédonie’s restructuring and a planned increase of airfares lay with the local autonomous government of New Caledonia – the company’s majority shareholder - even if France remained willing to help by providing experts.
Penchard also stressed that since 120 French army and police were sent to the island yesterday to restore order, no further clashes have occurred.
The deployment, aimed mainly at preventing any further payback or revenge killing, involved two platoons of gendarmes along with several helicopters and a French army CASA transport plane.
President Sarkozy’s visit still on
Penchard also told reporters yesterday she believed there was no indication that the conflict could escalate, but the French government was closely monitoring the situation.
She said that along with the announced start of mediation came a commitment from Maré’s disgruntled airline users to lift blockades to the local airport of La Roche as early as today.
Meanwhile, New Caledonia’s MP in the French National Assembly (Lower House), Gaël Yanno, also called yesterday for “steps to be taken” to ensure that unrest on Maré island did not spread to the capital Nouméa, where a strong Maré community also lives.
Most political leaders from across the spectrum have also called for violence to stop and for dialogue to start.
Penchard also said that the recent outbreak of violence did cast doubt on a scheduled visit to New Caledonia by French President Nicolas Sarkozy between August 26 and 28.
One of the high points of Sarkozy’s visit to New Caledonia is the official opening of the 14th Pacific Games.
At the weekend in Paris, Penchard said in a statement the clashes “took place in the special context of the island of Maré, where clan tensions have added to the conflict around the price of airline tickets”.
She called on all parties, including chiefly ones, to “do all in their power for these confrontations to cease” and “invites all parties to restore dialogue which is the only way to find an outcome to this conflict”.
An uneasy calm
An uneasy calm prevailed yesterday in the wake of the clashes with most of the dead and wounded being casualties from gunshots.
On Saturday, confrontation between armed rival groups escalated on the island, which has a population of 6000. A group of disgruntled customers of Air Calédonie have for weeks blockaded the local airport at La Roche.
A group of several hundred members from the clan of Ghuama (whose chief is Nidoish Naisseline, who is also chairman of Air Calédonie) undertook to remove the blockades, set up in protest against an announced hike in the price or airline tickets.
The confrontation, which is said to have been aggravated by the consumption of alcohol and long-simmering tribal land-related conflicts, turned violent and deadly on Saturday afternoon with the shooting of several youths.
Most of the injured have been evacuated to Nouméa’s Gaston Bourret territorial hospital for treatment.
Bodies of the victims were also flown to the capital for a planned autopsy.
But yesterday, the roadblocks at Maré’s La Roche airport still remained in place.
Australian warning
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has also updated its advice for nationals intending to travel to New Caledonia.
“We advise you to be alert to your own security in New Caledonia. Exercise common sense and look out for suspicious behaviour, as you would in Australia. On 6 August 2011, four people were killed and several were seriously injured at Maré domestic airport during ongoing protest activity. You should avoid all protests and demonstrations as they may turn violent.
“Protest activity, particularly at the domestic airports in Maré, Lifou and the Isle of Pines, is causing localised tensions and disruptions to flights and the supply of essential services.
“You should monitor developments and plan accordingly”, the notice read, adding that “political tensions have increased in New Caledonia during 2011 regarding symbols of identity, including the choice of a flag for New Caledonia. Tourists should avoid overt displays of the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), French and other local flags.
“You should avoid protests and demonstrations as they can become violent.”
Patrick Antoine Decloitre is editor of Oceania Flash.

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