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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (July 10, 2002 - Oceania Flash)---New Caledonia’s Southern province assembly on Friday endorsed granting additional nickel mining rights to Canadian giant Inco in the Prony area, in the south of the main island, the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reported.

The move came amid strong opposition from pro-independence parties and unions, including the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Party, or FLKNS, and the Kanak and Exploited Workers Union, or USTKE.

The nod from the provincial assembly, which is dominated by the anti-independence RPCR party, gives Inco the go-ahead to prospect in the Prony region, with the view of expanding its base in New Caledonia’s crucial nickel reserve, which holds an estimated quarter of the world resources.

Goro pledged if granted the permit, it would spend a further approximately $35 million in the French territory over the next five years.

As the provincial council was endorsing the permit on Friday, protesters from USTKE and FLNKS, as well as some traditional Kanak chiefs, were demonstrating outside, saying territory’s resources had been "given away" to the Canadian company.

Provincial President Jacques Lafleur received a delegation of protesters and held talks to hear their grievances.

But after about an hour, the motion was passed with the support of all RPCR members -- the majority in the assembly.

FLNKS members, and also those from the Alliance and National Front, refused to vote.

FLNKS later said this questioned the validity of the Nouméa Accord signed in 1998 between RPCR, FLNKS and the French government, which promotes the notion of a balanced economic and social development in New Caledonia.

Another nickel project in the Northern province’s Koniambo region is also scheduled to begin in a few years, in joint venture with another Canadian giant, Falconbridge.

"If Koniambo doesn’t take off soon, this will be a serious blow to the Nouméa Accord and we’ll probably withdraw from it as signatories," a FLNKS spokesman later said.

"Don’t count on us any more to be part of a process that deprives the citizens of this country and future generations," provincial MP Gerald At-Chee told the assembly.

"This decision has very far-reaching repercussions. We’re talking hundreds of billions CFP.... It will also probably have an impact on the Northern mine," Alliance leader Didier Leroux said, calling the permit approval "premature and dangerous, including on the political point of view.

"You have the majority, it’s understood. This is a big shot you’re playing, but for (New Caledonia), I’m afraid this is one too many."

Former FLNKS Chairman Roch Wamytan said the project lacked "communication."

"You have to take into account the way Kanaks think. People have to understand what’s going on. I solemnly request you not to carry on destabilizing. Take a break, in order not to breed frustration, protest and finally violence that we do not want," he said.

The new permit would potentially boost Inco’s Goro nickel’s production capacity to up to 180,000 tons per year.

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