Defence on Standby to Rescue Australians Trapped in New Caledonia

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Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong says the defence force is ’ready to fly' once local authorities advise it is safe to use the airport.

As soon as French authorities advise the airport in Nouméa is safe, Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel will be deployed to New Caledonia to help evacuate the estimated 300 Australians trapped there by over a week of violence, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said.

Six people—all believed to be locals—have been killed so far in the French-ruled Pacific Island territory during rioting that was sparked by French government plans to reform the territory’s elections, reducing the likelihood of a future majority in favour of independence.

The latest fatality was a person killed in an exchange of fire at one of the many impromptu barricades blocking roads on the island.

A state of emergency has been declared, and a curfew has been imposed. Reports have said that both hotels housing foreigners and locals were running out of food, and all commercial flights in and out have been stopped.

While the six deaths announced by authorities are directly attributable to the violence, there are fears that it may be even higher due to people being unable to access medical help due to the deteriorating situation, worsened by roadblocks in the city, or too afraid to venture outside to find it.

French soldiers of the 8th Marine Infantry Regiment (8e RIMa) secure the Magenta airport in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 17, 2024. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)French soldiers of the 8th Marine Infantry Regiment (8e RIMa) secure the Magenta airport in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 17, 2024. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)

Thierry de Greslan, a representative from the hospital in Nouméa, estimated that three or four people “may have died due to lack of access to medical care.”

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He added that around 50 dialysis patients had been unable to receive their treatments. The number of visits to emergency rooms dropped significantly, up to 80 percent.

“We are having great difficulty bringing our patients and health care workers in. Teams have been working since Monday and are exhausted,” he said. “We are in an urban guerrilla situation with nightly gunshot wounds.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Australian government is “closely monitoring” events.

“Commercial flights stopped a couple of days ago. We are looking at in what way we can provide assistance to Australians who are currently in New Caledonia,” he said.

Senator Wong said the government is working with French authorities to expedite the evacuation of any Australians who wish to leave.

“The Australian Defence Force is ready to fly, pending commercial flights resuming,” she said. “French authorities advise the situation on the ground is preventing flights. We continue to pursue approvals.”

Australians stuck in New Caledonia amid the unrest say they’re desperate to get home as supermarket shelves are bare.

Brisbane woman Sophie Jones Bradshaw told AAP she was exhausted and scared as she waited to see whether she could return to Australia ahead of her son’s fourth birthday in several days.

She said she had slept fully dressed for the past five nights with her passport, phone, and laptop in a bag ready to go at any moment.

“I’m really hoping that [the airport] will open on the 22nd and I'll be maintained on my flight, which I doubt,” she said. “But I’m really hoping and it’s hard not to know.”

People queue to enter a supermarket to purchase groceries and food in the Magenta district of Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)People queue to enter a supermarket to purchase groceries and food in the Magenta district of Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)
Empty shelves are seen at a supermarket in Noumea on May 16, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)Empty shelves are seen at a supermarket in Noumea on May 16, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia. (Delphine Mayeur/AFP via Getty Images)
A photo shows burnt-out cars in the parking lot of the old hospital on the outskirts of Noumea, New Caledonia in the South Pacific on May 16, 2024. (Delphine Mayeur /AFP via Getty Images)A photo shows burnt-out cars in the parking lot of the old hospital on the outskirts of Noumea, New Caledonia in the South Pacific on May 16, 2024. (Delphine Mayeur /AFP via Getty Images)

Another Australian trapped by the fighting told Reuters that they were rationing food as they waited for a way out.

Joanne Elias, has been in the territory since May 10 and is trapped at a local resort with with her husband and four children.

“The kids are definitely hungry because we don’t really have much option of what we can feed them. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here for,” she said.

Meanwhile the mayor of Nouméa has described New Caledonia as being “under siege.”

Sonia Lagarde said that while overnight violence has eased due to a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, “we are far from a return to normal.”

“The situation is not improving,” she said. “Quite the contrary, despite all the appeals for calm ... The damage is incredible … It’s a spectacle of desolation.”

AAP and Reuters contributed to this report.

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