New Caledonia votes on independence from France

Supporters attend the closing meeting of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) campaign for a 'yes' to New Caledonia's independence from France in Noumea, on the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, on October 30, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 04 November 2018
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New Caledonia votes on independence from France

  • Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination for Kanaky, their name for New Caledonia, and throw off the shackles of “colonial” authorities in Paris

NOUMEA: The French Pacific islands of New Caledonia began voting Sunday on whether to become an independent nation, in a closely-watched test of support for France in one of its many territories scattered around the globe.
Some 18,000 kilometers (11,000 miles) from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel — a vital electronics component — and is a strategic foothold for France in the Pacific.
Voting in New Caledonia’s 284 polling stations opened at 8.00 am local time Sunday (2100 GMT Saturday) and was to end at 6.00 pm, with results expected the same evening.
The participation rate was 41.8 percent at midday, compared to 27.3 percent at the same time during local elections in 2014, the High Commission said Sunday.
Some 175,000 people are eligible to vote in the remote islands fringed by spectacular beaches, with opinion polls predicting a large majority in favor of staying French.
But there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favor independence, and the white population, which boiled over into deadly violence in the 1980s.
The quasi-civil war claimed more than 70 lives. It led to the 1998 Noumea Accord which paved the way for the steady devolution of powers as well as Sunday’s referendum.
Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination for Kanaky, their name for New Caledonia, and throw off the shackles of “colonial” authorities in Paris.
“It’s a great day for us. My father, my grandfather fought for this country and today is the second fight in the ballot box,” said pro-independence supporter Patrick Watrone on Sunday, dressed in the colors of Kanak flag.
But indigenous people make up less than 50 percent of the electorate and some Kanaks back staying part of France, not least due to the 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) the French state hands to the islands every year.
Going it alone, “I’m not sure we have all the assets we’d need to succeed,” said Marc Gnipate, a 62-year-old pensioner.
Polls suggest 63 to 75 percent of voters will opt against breaking away from France, which claimed the islands in 1853 and once used them as a penal colony.
Under the 1998 deal, in the event of a “no” vote two further referendums on independence can still be held before 2022.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to give a televised address after the results, has largely stayed clear of the campaign but during a visit to Noumea in May he declared “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia.”
He also raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, a territory which broke from France and Britain in 1980.
Accusing the US of “turning its back on the region in recent months,” Macron said China was “building its hegemony step by step” in the Pacific — suggesting an independent New Caledonia could provide Beijing’s next foothold.
Australia has also expressed concerns about China’s activities in neighboring island states — which the Lowy Institute think-tank estimates received $1.78 billion in aid from Beijing from 2006-16 — boosting its own spending in response.
While Australia officially remains neutral on New Caledonia’s independence vote, Canberra’s former consul-general in Noumea Denise Fisher said it appreciated the stability France’s Pacific presence offered in the face of China’s rise.
“It’s been fortunate for Australia to have a well-resourced Western ally such as France engaged in the region, particularly at a time when there’s a lot of geo-strategic change and new players like China coming into the region,” she told the ABC.
“There are a few uncertainties arising now.”
Home to 269,000 people, New Caledonia is one of a handful of French island outposts — a legacy of the country’s 19th-century empire — which retain strategic importance.
The referendum will be a test of the appeal of remaining part of France for such far-flung territories, which are heavily dependent on state handouts but where many feel overlooked by Paris.
Both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte have been rocked since last year by major protests over living standards and perceived neglect.
In New Caledonia, there are fears that the vote could expose tensions over stark inequalities which persist despite government efforts to redress the economic balance in favor of Kanaks.
The Kanak community is plagued by high school dropout rates, chronic unemployment and poor housing conditions.
Gangs of delinquent youths have become increasingly common on the streets and both sides fear violence among them if the “no” vote prevails.


US regrets Afghan civilian deaths, says answer is peace

Updated 25 April 2019
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US regrets Afghan civilian deaths, says answer is peace

  • International and pro-government forces were responsible for the deaths of 305 civilians in the first three months of the year, UN says

WASHINGTON: The US envoy negotiating with the Taliban voiced regret Thursday over findings that US-backed forces were killing more civilians than the militants, and said the solution was a peace deal.

A UN report released found that international and pro-government forces were responsible for the deaths of 305 civilians in the first three months of the year.

“We deeply regret any loss of innocent life during military operations. We never target innocents,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator who is set shortly to resume talks with the Taliban in Qatar on ending the war.

“War is treacherous, and unintended consequences are devastating. While we strive to prevent casualties, real solution is a cease-fire or reduced violence as we pursue lasting peace,” he tweeted.

Khalilzad appealed to the Taliban and other Afghans to “work to make this the year of peace.”

He struck a different tone than the spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, Col. Dave Butler, who said the US pursued “the highest standards of accuracy and accountability” and that troops “reserve the right of self-defense.”

President Donald Trump is eager to find a negotiated way to pull out troops and end the longest-ever US war.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with whom the Taliban refuse to negotiate, has called for next week a “loya jirga,” a traditional gathering of all the country’s communities, although it is unclear how broad the attendance will be.

Officials in Kabul said the Taliban ambushed a security convoy in western Afghanistan, killing nine policemen, and in Kabul, a would-be attacker died when a bomb he was trying to plant at a private university detonated prematurely.

According to a councilman in western Farah province, Abdul Samad Salehi, the ambush took place in Anardara district as the convoy was heading to defuse a roadside bomb on Wednesday afternoon.

Shortly after the attack, other Taliban insurgents targeted and briefly overran the district police headquarters, setting off hours-long clashes, Salehi said. Reinforcements arrived later and managed to wrest back control of the headquarters.

In Kabul, a bomb meant to target the private Jahan University blew up apparently prematurely inside a campus bathroom, killing the suspected militant and wounding three students.

Basir Mujahid, spokesman for the Kabul police chief, said the blast took place around 10:30 a.m.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion but the Taliban and Daesh have targeted schools and placed of education in the past.

Also on Thursday, unidentified gunmen wounded a local reporter in eastern Nangarhar province, said Farid Khan, spokesman for the provincial police chief.

Khan said Emran lemar, a reporter for the Mazal radio station, was shot inside a park in the provincial capital of Jalalabad. He was hospitalized and a police investigation into the attack has begun, Khan said.

In March, Sultan Mahmoud Khirkhowa, a local TV journalist in eastern Khost province, was shot and killed when two men on a motorcycle opened fire on his vehicle. The Daesh affiliate claimed the attack in Khost.