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Fresh unrest erupts in French territory of New Caledonia

Nouméa, France — A fresh surge of unrest hit the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, with several buildings set on fire overnight, including a police station and a town hall, authorities said Monday.

The new spike in violence comes as France prepares to vote in historic legislative elections this weekend and support for the far-right surges across the country.

In mid-May, rioting and looting erupted in New Caledonia over an electoral reform plan that Indigenous Kanak people feared would leave them in a permanent minority, putting independence hopes definitively out of reach.

The unrest left nine dead and damage estimated at more than 1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion).

In recent days French authorities had insisted that Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, which is located nearly 17,000 kilometers (10,600 miles) from Paris, was back under their control.

But the new violence erupted after seven independence activists accused of orchestrating the deadly riots had been sent to mainland France for pre-trial detention over the weekend.

On Monday, the pro-independence group CCAT denounced France’s “colonial tactics” and demanded the “immediate release and return” of the activists, including its head Christian Tein, saying they should be tried in New Caledonia.

French prosecutors said the independence activists had been sent to mainland France “in order to allow the investigations to continue in a calm manner, free of any pressure.”

‘Attacks on police and arson’

The High Commission, which represents the French state in the archipelago, said in a statement that the night was “marked by unrest throughout the mainland [of the territory] and on the island of Pins and Mare, requiring the intervention of numerous reinforcements: with attacks on the police, arson and roadblocks.”

A 23-year-old man in a state of “respiratory distress” died during the night after visiting the barricades in Noumea, public prosecutor Yves Dupas said.

The prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation, Dupas said, adding that the victim had told his parents that he had not been “injured by the police.”

A motorist also died on Sunday evening in a head-on collision with another vehicle in Paita, near Noumea, after having been “forced to make a U-turn because of a roadblock erected by pro-independence militants,” officials said.

In Dumbea, north of the capital, the municipal police station and a garage were set alight. Four armored vehicles intervened, an AFP journalist said.

Several fires broke out in the Ducos and Magenta districts of Noumea, while police and separatists clashed in Bourail, resulting in one injury, AFP learned.

The High Commission reported “several fires were extinguished”, particularly in Ducos and Magenta, adding that “premises and vehicles of the municipal police and private vehicles” were set on fire.

“Abuses, destruction and attempted fires were also committed in several places in Paita,” in the Noumea suburbs, added the High Commission, which said police in Mare had also been attacked.

On Monday morning, many schools were closed due to the renewed unrest.

The French government has responded to the violence by sending more than 3,000 troops and police to New Caledonia.

Nearly 1,500 people have been arrested since the unrest began, including 38 on Monday.

President Emmanuel Macron has said that the controversial voting reform would be suspended due to the snap parliamentary polls in France.

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