Four people were shot dead and 23 injured in violent clashes over the price of air tickets in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia, officials say.
Saturday’s violence on the island of Mare came during protests over fare increases that have prompted locals to blockade airports in recent days.
“Mare has lived a nightmare day. Two platoons of police were sent there and hopefully calm will return tonight. It is a tragic outcome,” High Commissioner Albert Dupuy said.
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He said that during the day the deputy commissioner in the Loyalty Islands had “numerous contacts with both parties to appeal to them to talk but the situation was too tense.”
The clashes occurred as part of protests by users of Air Caledonie who have blocked airports since July 22 in protest at domestic airline’s new pricing policy.
A group of residents of Mare’s Ghuama district, whose chief Nidoish Naisseline is also the airline chairman, attempted to dislodge protesters occupying the airfield.
Tensions between the two groups, both armed, quickly turned violent on Saturday afternoon.
Four men were gunned down during clashes and 23 others wounded, some in critical condition.
Dupuy said several of the injured were evacuated by helicopter to Gaston Bourret Hospital in Noumea while others were taken to the clinic on the neighbouring island of Lifou.
The house of one of the supporters of the flyers was burned and several shops were vandalised, he said.
Nidoish Naisseline flew to Mare late afternoon by military aircraft to appeal for calm among the people of his district where he has a strong influence.
Dupuy was to travel there on Sunday and a squadron of police will also be sent.
“The state is concerned about this violence and we hope that the presence of the police will allow calm to return,” he said, hoping for “mediation” between the parties.
Air Caledonie said Friday it was facing bankruptcy due to the protests, which were costing it more than 80,000 euros ($A108,400) a day, with disruption also hitting the islands’ tourism sector at the peak holiday season.
The airline has been hit by industrial action that ended on July 29. Flyers have also been protesting against the airline’s new fare structure and have been blockading airports in the Loyalty Islands and the Ile des Pins.
On Friday, the company was only serving the islands of Ouvea and Tiga in the north of the archipelago, while flights on the more profitable routes to Mare, Lifou and Ile des Pins were grounded.
Locals fear the disruption could prove devastating to the islands’ tourism industry – one of the key pillars of the economy.