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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, June 8) – French police in New Caledonia on Thursday stepped in to regain control of the French Pacific territory's main wharf, which had remained controlled by striking union members for the past two weeks.

"Police and gendarme forces have today intervened to ensure security and good operation of the Nouméa port", the French High commission in Nouméa said in a release.

The French office, which is representing the French government in this Pacific territory, is also responsible for maintaining law and order.

"Growing tension on the (wharf) site posed a risk to degenerate and cause significant unrest especially between the two unions that are confronting in this industrial action," he said. "The port's activities, that have been made difficult by the blockade of one cargo ship, should now resume", the French High Commission said.

The police acted on a warrant issued by a local administrative tribunal, following a complaint from Nouméa Port Authorities that demanded that normal security conditions be restored on the wharf.

Last weekend, giant container vessel "Asia Decimo", owned by multinational company Maersk, decided not to unload its containers at Nouméa because it assessed security conditions were not met.

The company justified the move, saying in substance that neither local police nor customs seemed to have any control over the port, but instead a local union relying on balaclava-wearing and armed members.

The Asia Decimo had since Friday last week been left to wait in the Nouméa harbour, where a major confrontation between rival dockers' unions has paralysed the wharf for the past two weeks. Instead, the "Asia Decimo" chose Suva, Fiji as its next port of call.

Another cargo vessel, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC)'s the "Calédonien", that had touched Nouméa harbour last month for the first time as part of a new Sydney-Nouméa cargo shipping service, is also targeted by members of the Union for Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE).

The MSC Calédonien is still surrounded by a wall of containers.

USTKE claims the introduction of these new shipping lines threatens the jobs of wharfies working for Manutrans, a stevedoring company that belongs to Louis Kotra Uregei.

The union says the new shipping line would eventually jeopardize other shipping companies docking in Nouméa and the jobs of some two hundred local wharfies.

As part of its new dealings with New Caledonia, the MSC has also struck an exclusive stevedoring pact with the local SATO company (whose prominent shareholders include the influent Lafleur family).

In the current confrontation, USTKE claims it defends the interests of wharfies working for other local stevedoring companies, such as Manutrans.

The union says if MSC is allowed to enter the local market and operate its weekly line to Australia, its vessel's huge capacity would have the potential to take significant business from existing other cargo ship and eventually strike a significant blow to local wharfies other than SATO.

Kotra Uregei is also the former President of USTKE.

Last week, USTKE members and those from a rival union, the STOP, has violently clashed when STOP members tried to forcibly enter the picketed wharf to unload the ship.

French riot police had to step in to put an end to what had become a free-for-all brawl between union members.

Since then, the situation at the Nouméa harbour remains tense and talks fostered by the French High Commission in New Caledonia have so far not resulted in any tangible outcome.

For the past two weeks, the Nouméa wharf has remained essentially under USTKE control.

Union sympathisers, some of those described by local media as "armed with iron bars, bush knives, Molotov cocktails", have maintained a blockade on New Caledonia's key economic tool.

June 9, 2006

Oceania Flash: http://newspad-pacific.info/?todo=main&type_news=2

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