20 May 2024

Defence Force Hercules awaits French approval before heading to New Caledonia

8:56 am on 20 May 2024
A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules arrives in Port Moresby, 30 November 2021.

A NZDF Hercules in Papua New Guinea, 2021. Photo: NZDF

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) is ready to send a Hercules to Noumea to bring New Zealanders home as soon as the French give permission to do so.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is in contact with around 250 New Zealanders in New Caledonia registered on SafeTravel. But they cannot leave until the airport has reopened and the roads are safe to use.

Defence Minister Judith Collins, in Italy for the Battle of Monte Cassino commemorations, told Morning Report on Monday morning everything was ready to go.

"My understanding - and I've been keeping up to date with this - is that the NZDF is really willing and able to go and to collect New Zealanders. But of course… there's issues that the French government obviously needs to sort out around the airport and the road to the airport."

Hundreds of armed French police used non-lethal grenades and tanks to clear protesters and roadblocks cutting off access between New Caledonia's airport and main city Noumea.

The French territory's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said it took more than 600 gendarmes to clear the road, and would take more time to remove the burnt out vehicles and other obstacles from the route.

National MP Judith Collins

Judith Collins. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Our advice is to New Zealanders to stay inside, register with SafeTravel, and to make sure that they don't put themselves into any situation that could be dangerous," Collins said.

As for which assets would be used to airlift Kiwis home, Collins said the Hercules "can take quite a large number of people, but we have other assets as well".

"Defence, they've simply said to me that they are really willing and able, they just need the clearance, and they will take whatever steps they need to do.

"So in the meantime, we realise that New Zealanders in New Caledonia are very distraught about what's been happening, and they want to get out, and we want to help them out as soon as we can."

"What I have been told is that we have the assets ready to go, and it's just a matter of getting that clearance… there are issues, and there's no point going in there if we, if people can't get to the airport. So that's very important that we wait till the right time."

Le Franc said more than 230 people have been arrested since unrest boiled over last Monday - sparked by anger at a proposed new law that would allow French residents who have lived there for more than 10 years to vote, which some say will weaken the indigenous Kanak vote.

In the last week six people have been killed, homes, schools and businesses have been burnt down and police stations ransacked. People have not been able to reach the hospital, and ambulances are unable to travel.

Coralie Cochin, a journalist with New Caledonia's La Première news service, told Morning Report the situation had calmed somewhat since the arrival of police reinforcements.

"There were not enough, clearly. So, it's not calm for everybody in all the neighbourhoods, but it's a little bit better this morning."

She said there were concerns the road to the airport might still not be usable, because "each time they try to reopen the road, some new roadblocks appear again".

Other roadblocks were blocking access to hospitals, she said.

"Yesterday I was doing some reports for my radio and I interviewed somebody who lost his uncle… the man who was 40 years old, he died. He had diabetes, and he really needed to go to the hospital to have dialysis, and it was impossible.

"And what we fear here in New Caledonia is that a lot of other people have to deal with that kind of situation, not to be able to be cured."

'Looking forward to getting home'

New Zealander Mike Lightfoot, in Noumea, said Kiwis were "certainly feeling safer" since the extra gendarme arrived. They have been having daily meetings at the Chateau Royale, where he has been staying.

"On Saturday we went for a walk down into Noumea and it seemed very, very calm. There were a lot of French people out and about," he told Morning Report.

"We spoke to locals who could speak English, and they were saying that things were feeling calmer. Overnight, we could hear explosions and gunshots from our hotel, and the next morning - Sunday morning - it was very eerie and there was a lot of armed military and gendarmes around the Noumea area.

"In itself that's a great thing for us because we see them, we know they're here to protect us, but at the same time it was a little bit eerie.

"But we certainly feel safe in the hotel here. And you know, the hotel staff have been amazing. The food has been replenished at the hotel, so there's no issue with that. And all the Kiwis right around New Caledonia I'm sure are looking forward to getting home."

He said Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials have told them the rescue plan will involve the Hercules.

"But of course, you know, and then nothing could happen until the French officials will allow the New Zealand Defence Force to fly in here, so it's really a waiting game for us. But at this stage, we're safe.

"All they're saying is that they have got everything up and running. It's ready to go and they will get on the ground here as soon as they can, but they need that authority from the French to say that they can transport Kiwis from their locations to the airport safely, and it has to be a priority for all of us."

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