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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (February 28, 2002 - Oceania Flash)---Vanuatu students studying at neighboring New Caledonia's university (UNC) now have their own home, which accommodates sixty persons.

The facility was inaugurated on Wednesday by visiting Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei, Télé-Nouvelle-Calédonie reported.

The project, which provides quality accommodations for Vanuatu students at the University of New Caledonia (some of whom are on French government scholarships) was begun over five years ago, but encountered numerous hardships on its way to completion.

Nearly two years ago, the Vanuatu Students House's foundation stone was finally laid, with France and Australia being the major co-funders.

Prime Minister Edward Natapei officially cut the ribbon opening the facility on Wednesday.

The new building features thirty two-bedroom apartments, a cafeteria, a common kitchen and a lobby.

It is expected to be operational starting with the beginning of the new 2002 semester.

This year it will accommodate some forty Vanuatu students. The remaining twenty beds probably will be allocated to students from other countries and territories.

Witnesses at the opening ceremony included French High Commissioner Thierry Lataste, Nouméa-based Australian Consul General Denise Fischer and UNC Vice Chancellor Paul de Deckker.

Speaking at the event, De Deckker recalled that the project was initiated as the result of a meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and then French State Secretary for Overseas Territories, Jean-Jacques Queyranne.

France and Australia then agreed to commit funds (about 80 percent and 20 percent of the cost) for the important project, valued at about US$ 1.3 million. The Vanuatu government also committed some funding.

It is expected that Vanuatu House also will be used during university breaks to host regional activities, such as workshops and training sessions.

Previously, Vanuatu students in New Caledonia faced accommodation difficulties, which were often solved by using small hotel rooms in downtown Nouméa.

Speaking during the ceremony on behalf of Mr. Downer, Consul General Fisher hailed what she said was "an architectural prowess that embraces the spirit of Oceania."

High Commissioner Lataste said, "The Vanuatu students’ house is part of New Caledonia's policy of regional integration, which France supports with determination."

Earlier this week, Natapei signed with New Caledonia's President Pierre Frogier a € 560,000 (US$ 484,893) regional co-operation agreement, which sets out France’s guidelines for assisting Vanuatu -- the former French-British condominium of the New Hebrides (which gained independence in 1980) -- until 2004.

The main areas covered were education, health, youth and sports, culture and media, with the remainder for various "institutional exchanges" and operations yet to be determined, diplomatic sources said.

This week also, Natapei visited the Northern region of New Caledonia, where he inspected a shrimp farm in Koné and a new agriculture college in Pouembout.

Natapei said he was particularly keen to visit the agricultural college, since his government was currently planning to build a similar facility on Vanuatu's largest island, Espiritu Santo.

New Caledonia’s Vice-President and Kanak women leader Déwé Gorodey, current Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Chairman Roch Wamytan and Vanuatu-based French ambassador Patrick Amiot, also accompanied Natapei there.

Prime Minister Natapei and his party left the French territory Thursday at the conclusion of their five-day official visit.

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