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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Aug. 5) - A crippling three-day strike by the Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE) in New Caledonia was called off on Wednesday after the union said it had received sufficient assurances from local authorities that their demands would be met.

Since Saturday, New Caledonia had been crippled by a general strike that severely disrupted air, sea and land transport, as well as the local radio and television (where local news went off air), the Nouméa wharf and a crucial flour mill.

New Caledonia was on Tuesday nearing paralysis, as access to the main fuel depot had also been blocked, preventing refill of all of the French Pacific territory's service stations.

To maintain passenger traffic, the international airport of La Tontouta had been placed under heightened police watch, but freight was still affected.

Since Saturday, USTKE had also decided to ban RFO television and radio journalists from reporting on the picket sites.

The general strike originated with pickets that blocked the Nouméa wharf a week ago

USTKE then claimed one of the stevedoring companies, Manutrans (that belongs to former USTKE leader Louis Kotra Uregei) was at risk of collapsing with some 40 staff, because of new arrangements between the wharf's dockers.

The strike also severely affected the Sofrana shipping company, which belongs to New Caledonia's prominent businessman and current economy minister Didier Leroux.

But the picketing at the wharf last week ended when police, acting on a justice warrant, intervened to end the blockade.

USTKE responded by calling on the general, roving strike on Saturday.

According to the agreement struck on Wednesday, Manutrans agrees to reverse the former arrangements (that intended to share the market between the four existing stevedoring companies, according to the cargo freight handled at the wharf).

USTKE claimed if the disputed arrangement had been maintained, Manutrans was poised to lose significant business and would have eventually been forced to close down and sack its dockers.

Since Wednesday, pickets have been lifted and about 4,000 union workers have withdrawn, but it could take several days before the situation returns to normal in New Caledonia.

Speaking after the agreement to end the strike was struck on Wednesday, economic affairs minister Didier Leroux said the government was forced to accept.

But Leroux also said this industrial action was uncalled for and disproportionate compared to the original dispute.

Leroux also told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program that the dispute had wider political implications, because of his new role as a minister for economic affairs in the newly elected government that came to power in June as a result of general elections in May.

The elections marked a significant shift in local politics and saw the end of a quarter of a century rule by former anti-independence RPCR-Rassemblement party led by veteran politician Jacques Lafleur.

"The USTKE has been suspected of being manipulated by Mr. Lafleur and he would like to create some very important civil disorder in order to appear as the savior of the civil peace - that I wouldn't be surprised", Leroux said, implying that the union had been "corrupt" and was "manipulated" by Lafleur to serve "political interests".

August 5, 2004

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