New Caledonia police arrest pro-independence leader over deadly protests

Christian Tein is accused of instigating riots against electoral reform last month in which nine people were killed.

Christian Tein, head of the CCAT
Christian Tein, head of the pro-independence CCAT, is accused of instigating the deadly revolt against French rule of New Caledonia [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]

Police in New Caledonia have arrested 11 people, including pro-independence leader Christian Tein, after deadly riots last month in the French Pacific territory.

New Caledonia’s chief prosecutor named Tein, leader of the CCAT (Field Action Coordination Cell) pro-independence movement, in a statement on Wednesday. The activist and 10 other unidentified people were arrested for “organised crime” offences, for which they may be held for up to 96 hours, it said.

The detentions are part of an ongoing police investigation launched on May 17, days after unrest erupted into a wave of armed clashes, looting, fires and other violence that turned parts of the capital, Noumea, and its suburbs into no-go zones.

The detainees are suspected of playing an instigating role in the violence, which killed nine people, including two police officers. Hundreds of people were injured and the damage was estimated at 1.5 billion euros ($1.6bn) of damage. France deployed 3,000 soldiers and police to the archipelago, about 1,300km (800 miles) northeast of Australia, to restore calm.

The violence broke out over French plans to expand the electoral roll by allowing French Europeans who had lived the islands for at least 10 years to vote.

The Indigenous Kanak people, who have long sought to break free from France, said the change to voting rights would leave the Kanak people in a permanent minority, putting independence definitively out of reach.

French President Emmanuel Macron suspended the plan last week after dissolving parliament for snap elections on June 30 and July 7.

Pro-independence groups have called for it to be completely withdrawn before talks on the island’s political future can restart.

‘Abusive’ arrests

Tein was detained as he prepared to hold a news conference at CCAT’s offices, which sit in a building housing the headquarters of the biggest pro-independence political party, the Caledonian Union (UC), the party said in a statement

Reine Hue, a UC elected official, said the police “entered the offices and took photos, especially of documents”.

Prosecutor Yves Dupas said CCAT’s offices had been searched “without incident”.

CCAT was created in November to oppose the electoral changes, which require the French constitution to be amended. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called it a “Mafia-style organisation”.

Tein was among pro-independence political figures who met Macron during his visit to New Caledonia last month.

The UC condemned Wednesday’s “abusive” arrests, charging in a statement that “local anti-independence leaders and criminal militiamen are able to swagger about in total freedom”.

But the party also urged followers “not to respond to the provocation”, calling for calm until more was known about the arrests.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies