By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Sept. 17) - New Caledonia's opposition party leader, Didier Leroux, on Tuesday called the evacuation of Wallis and Futuna islanders from ethnic-troubled Ave Maria near the capital Nouméa tantamount to "ethnic cleansing" and a symptom of France's "resignation".

In a communiqué, Leroux said it was "scandalous to see the French State, the government of New Caledonia and the Southern Province to accept the departure of those families, whereas their role should have been to protect them and allow them to stay in their homes".

"The silence of the signatories to the Nouméa accord can only be interpreted as evidence of an inadmissible resignation, " he said.

Similar concerns were earlier this month expressed by the local branch of the French far-right National Front party and its leader, Guy Georges.

The evicted community's lawyer, Frederic de Greslan, earlier this month also claimed the whole situation was tantamount to "looming ethnic cleansing" and that his clients were in effect denied rights enshrined in the French constitution.

Officially, the clashes are described as ethnic-related and based on land claims from the Kanak community. Strife in the Wallisian community has also coincided with a major dispute in Saint Louis between two Kanak chiefs - Robert Moyatea and Roch Wamytan, a former FLNKS leader. The two are disputing traditional authority in Saint Louis.

Since December 2001, FLNKS has been unable to elect a president at the helm of the pro-independence indigenous Kanak movement, mainly due to a rift between its two main factions - the Union Calédonienne (UC) and the Palika (Kanak Liberation Party).

Wallisians in New Caledonia are often perceived as anti-independence, a stance locally described as "loyalist," and close to the RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic) party, which currently has a majority within the French territory's affluent Southern Province, the territorial Congress (Parliament) and the four-year-old local government.

De Greslan said the situation was "a slap in the face" of New Caledonia's Nouméa accord.

The accord was signed five years ago between the French government, pro-independence party FLNKS and anti-independence RPCR. It makes numerous references to New Caledonia's multi-ethnic community - indigenous Kanaks, Europeans, Wallisians, Futunians, Vietnamese, and Indonesians - with stress on the need for everyone to work towards a "common destiny".

The evicted Wallisians have earlier this week obtained guarantees that they would all find accommodation, on a temporary basis until they can either buy or build their own houses.

Since Monday, the 30 remaining families from Wallis and Futuna islands (a French Pacific territory located Northeast of Fiji), who had settled in the catholic mission of Ave Maria in the village of Saint Louis are leaving what has been their homes for the past 40 years.

Their departure, which has been placed under heavy police and military guard, involved mobilizing 200 men and the use of armored vehicles to seal off the whole area.

It is anticipated that by Wednesday, everyone in the Wallis and Futuna community will have left.

The Ave Maria Catholic mission has been home to over 1,000 people, originally from Wallis and Futuna Islands.

But since December 2001, it has been the scene of heavy clashes between the Polynesians and members of the local Kanak community.

Over the period, the people died as a result of those armed clashes.

Under police escort, outgoing dwellers are now removing all personal items and belongings, even the corrugated iron that roofed what they once called their home, sinks, bathtubs, and toilets.

What could not be taken away is being burned on the spot, so as "not to leave anything behind", community spokesman Vincent Holopopo, from the "Ave Maria disaster" association, said.

The Kanak community in Saint Louis claims the 23 hectares of land on which the Ave Maria mission is located have to be returned to them.

Earlier attempts to settle the conflict, under the auspices of the French High commission in New Caledonia, were defeated by an upsurge of fresh armed violence at the end of June this year, when more clashes have erupted, houses were burnt down and several persons were injured by unidentified snipers.

Saint Louis chiefs also once said although they wanted the Wallisians to leave, this should be done "with dignity".

On August 25, French police decided to intervene in what was until then regarded as a no go zone: over 200 men, using two helicopters and several dozens trucks and armored vehicles, and acting on a court warrant, conducted a dawn raid in the troubled village.

While four men were arrested and briefly detained, police have also seized over a dozen weapons, and some 500 rounds of ammunition, some of which high-calibre or modified to become lethal.

Half a dozen of the weapons were identified as stolen.

Since the raid, police have cordoned off the area, in an apparent bid to install a buffer zone between the two rival communities.

Ave Maria was once home to some 170 families, over a thousand persons.

September 18, 2003

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