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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (April 3, 2002 - Oceania Flash)---A French policeman was "severely" wounded by gunshots Tuesday in the Nouméa suburb village of Saint Louis, where violence forced French police to intervene for the past three days, RFO's Télé-Nouvelle-Calédonie reports.

Over the weekend, Kanaks in Saint Louis and Wallisian dwellers from the nearby Ave Maria Catholic mission clashed again in armed fights, forcing local police to step in and use teargas against snipers.

On Monday, French mobile gendarmes unit commander Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Marie Garrido was shot in the back and rushed to Nouméa's Gaston Bourret Hospital for medical treatment.

His condition was described a "severe." Doctors said he had received bullets in the lower back, which had perforated his bulletproof jacket.

Throughout the Easter weekend, vehicles using the provincial highway that crosses the troubled villages were consistently been stoned by an estimated forty youths, who were attempting to block traffic.

The French gendarmes' mobile unit mobilized nine of their armored vehicles in an effort to stop the stoning.

Some 160 teargas grenades also were used to quell the disturbance, RFO reported.

For most of Tuesday, the French High Commission had public traffic on the road blocked. Late in the day it was reopened only to users who had no other alternative and on the condition that private vehicles were escorted by the gendarmes' armored vehicles.

The French government office told the public not to travel through the area, "unless it is absolutely necessary."

The conflict stems from local Kanak claims that the 1,000-strong Wallisian community in Ave Maria has to leave.

Kanak youths say the land was made available to the Catholic mission over forty years ago and now had to be returned.

A deadline had been set for March 8 last month for all Wallisians to evacuate the area, but it was not honored.

The conflict has also resulted in an open confrontation between the Saint Louis area's two main clan chiefs: Roch Wamytan (the current Melanesian Spearhead Group Chairman and pro-independence FLNKS high official) and Robert Moyatea.

Last month Moyatea was shot at his residence and later claimed he had recognized the aggressor, whom he believed was a close associate of Wamytan's.

Wamytan earlier said he believed the ethnic tensions in Saint Louis should be solved without any outside negotiator being involved, but rather through the "Pacific Way," with respect to customs and tradition.

He also advocated for the mission area, on which the Wallisians have settled for the past forty years, to be given back to his clan.

During the weekend, 34-year-old Pascal Nemeadjou, a Kanak believed to have played a key part in the current conflict, was arrested in Saint Louis in connection with a traffic offense. He was later sentenced to three months jail.

Another Kanak, 26-year-old Jean-Marie Goyetta, died earlier this year as a result of a fatal bullet injury sustained during a similar clash between the two communities.

A French police spokesman said no weapons had been confiscated so far in the troubled area.

"It is difficult to arrest people who are hiding in the bush", he said.

Anti-independence RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic) leader Jacques Lafleur on Tuesday reacted to the recent development by calling on the French government and parties involved to "take their responsibilities."

He added that he wants the culprits to be identified and arrested.

Other political parties in New Caledonia, including the National Front and Alliance, have also strongly protested the "upsurge in law and order breaches" and asked the French government to display "authority."

Latest census statistics show that of the current 196,836 inhabitants of New Caledonia, 17,763 are of Wallis and Futuna descent.

Most of them live in Nouméa and its suburbs.

They mainly work in the building industry and for the government.

There are only 14,166 people living in Wallis and Futuna itself, northeast of Fiji.

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