Australia and NZ begin New Caledonia evacuations

New Caledonia riots
New Caledonia has been gripped by riots since lawmakers in France passed reforms to give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights in the Pacific territory [Getty Images]

An Australian military transport plane has departed from New Caledonia, carrying travellers stranded after unrest shut down the island's international airport.

It is the first of two Australian aircraft arriving to rescue 300 citizens who have registered for assistance in the French Pacific territory.

A New Zealand Air Force plane has also arrived, according to Flightradar24, and is among a series of proposed flights which will bring about 50 people home.

The unrest began last week after lawmakers in Paris voted through changes that will allow more French residents to vote in local elections, a move indigenous leaders say will dilute the political influence of native people.

Four civilians - including at least three indigenous Kanak residents - have been killed in riots along with two police officers.

Dozens more have been injured and more than 200 people arrested so far.

Both Australia and New Zealand said they would prioritise flying out those with the most "pressing need", with passenger lists being organised by consular staff.

Tourists from other countries would also be assisted, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said.

France's High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday the airport remained closed for commercial flights, and it would deploy the military to protect public buildings.

As well as witnessing fires and looting, holidaymakers who have been stuck for more than a week have reported food shortages.

"The situation in New Caledonia remains dynamic, and New Zealand officials are continuing to work with French counterparts and other partners especially Australia to understand what is needed to ensure the safety of our people there," New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said.

Around 290 New Zealanders are believed to be in New Caledonia.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester told AFP news agency that he and and his wife Tiffany were "ecstatic" at the prospect of getting home after being confined to a resort near Nouméa for over a week.

"We realise we probably won't get on these flights, because those who have higher needs will get on them, but we at least know we have a way out in the next few days," he said.

The French High Commission in New Caledonia say French gendarmes trying to take back control of the 60km (37 mile) road between Nouméa and La Tontouta international have "neutralised" 76 roadblocks and are now clearing debris such as burnt-out vehicles.

Two burnt out cars on a road

AFP journalists said the roadblocks had been rebuilt by pro-independence Kanak activists.

A masked 25-year-old who gave only his first name Stanley, said the proposed voting reform "means the elimination of the Kanak people".

"That's what they don't understand over there - we are already in the minority in our own home," he told AFP.

Another masked man named Simon, 34 said they were letting drivers pass through the roadblock.

"It's calm, the regulars already know us on the barricades," he said.

Travel advice by the Australian government has warned people not to try and get to the airport themselves saying the route “is not yet considered safe”.

The airport remains closed for commercial flights, and a decision on when to reopen it will be reassessed on Thursday, the local government has said.

It has estimated that about 3,200 people are waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia.

France has flown in 1,050 extra police to boost security in the territory, with a further 600 reinforcements to arrive "in the coming hours", France's High Commission in New Caledonia said on Tuesday.

The military is being deployed to protect public buildings, it added.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the military would need to remain deployed in New Caledonia "for some time".

Viro Xulue, part of a Kanak community group providing social assistance, told Reuters it felt like a return to the unrest of the 1980s.

"We are really scared about the police, the French soldiers, and we are scared about the anti-Kanak militia terrorist group.

"The French Government doesn't know how to control people here. They send more than 2,000 military to control, but it's a fail."

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

Map showing where New Caledonia sits in relation to Australia and New Zealand