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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (February 11, 2002 - Oceania Flash)---About 100 persons attended a mass on Sunday to mourn the death of the first victim of ethnic tension between Kanaks and Wallisians, the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reports.

The unrest, which erupted last December, involves two communities near the capital, Nouméa, one in the village of Saint Louis and the other on the site of the Ave Maria Catholic mission.

Tensions, which have been brewing for several years, stem from land claims on the Ave Maria land, which is now home to about a thousand residents of Wallisian origin.

There are about 20,000 Wallisians in New Caledonia, accounting for about ten percent of the French Pacific territory's population and more than the resident population still living in Wallis and Futuna, located northeast of Fiji.

Early last month, 26-year-old Jean-Marie Goyetta, a father of three, was critically wounded by a bullet as gunshots were exchanged between the two settlements.

He died earlier this month in Nouméa Gaston Bourret Territorial Hospital’s intensive care unit.

On Sunday, one week after Goyetta's death, his family organized a mass to mourn his passing.

No incident was reported in what was described as a "dignified" and "calm" gathering.

New target

Last week, a Wallisian family that had fled Ave Maria because their house had been burned down was one again the target of gunshots fired by unidentified individuals.

Several bullets hit the owner’s car.

"On December 7, I fled because my house was burned down and now they are chasing us," Kamali Sako said.

No one was injured, but residents of the area, who have now formed an association, met to voice their concern and protest against what they called the "inertia" of local authorities to step in and restore law and order.

Residents also pointed out that for the past two months, they have been "scared" to drive through this area.

Political involvement

In a release late last week, former pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) President, current Chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG, which consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and FLNKS) but also one of the most prominent customary chiefs in the Saint Louis area, Roch Wamytan, accused the French state of carrying out what he terms operations of "organized destabilization" through a "manipulation" and "foul play" strategy.

"In this troubled period for New Caledonia, I had to publicly denounce the organized destabilization in my country," he said, referring to the recent events in Saint Louis, but also others which, in his view, aim at "neutralizing FLNKS."

"One has to wonder who is behind all this."

"Whether it is Saint Louis village, in Kanaky (New Caledonia) at large or even in the whole of Melanesian countries, manipulation and destabilization are still vivid. The method is based on the 'divide and rule' concept," he said.

Anti-independence leader and RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic) President Jacques Lafleur, on Thursday, said he wished for a dialog be initiated between Saint Louis's rival communities, "so that a fair and balanced solution can be found."

Speaking on Télé-Nouvelle-Calédonie, Lafleur denied allegations that his party (which holds seven of the 11 territorial government portfolios) had done nothing to restore order and pointed out this was the responsibility of the French State.

He added that Nouméa Mayor (and RPCR member) Jean Lèques and he had raised the matter with France's representative in New Caledonia, High Commissioner Thierry Lataste.

Lafleur also said he had received a delegation of traditional chiefs from the tense area.

"What I'll try to do now is end those tensions and isolate those who are still trying to inflame the situation."

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