New Caledonia unrest: Mercy flight lands at Auckland International Airport, further evacuations likely during week

A New Zealand Defense Force Hercules aircraft that previously departed New Caledonia as the first mercy flight to remove Kiwis from the riot-torn island landed in Auckland this evening.

Women, children, the sick and the elderly are believed to have priority in the evacuation effort, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules carried about 50 passengers out of the French territory’s capital, Noumea. .

The plane landed at Auckland International Airport at around 10pm, after it emerged it would land back at the Auckland RNZAF base in Whenuapai, where it departed this afternoon.

An NZDF C-130 Hercules arrives at Auckland International Airport, transporting the first Kiwis home from riot-torn New Caledonia.  Photo / Hayden Woodward
An NZDF C-130 Hercules arrives at Auckland International Airport, transporting the first Kiwis home from riot-torn New Caledonia. Photo / Hayden Woodward

Bob and Beverly Jones, a couple from Auckland, said it was a relief to be back in New Zealand as things were “getting worse” in Noumea.

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The retired couple spent eight days in the capital, having initially booked a five-day holiday.

“We had one day off and the rest was chaos,” Bob said.

The couple said 150 police officers were staying in the same hotel as them, so they felt fairly calm during the riots.

“Northern Noumea was worse, they were looting and creating barricades on the road between Noumea and the main airport… I think there were 76 barricades there.”

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Foreign Minister Winston Peters previously announced the flight just an hour before it took off from Auckland’s RNZAF base, saying it would be the first of several emergency evacuation missions.

The Hercules landed at Noumea Magenta Airfield shortly after 5pm NZDT today and departed on its return journey to Auckland at 7pm.

Kiwi Nat Jones told the Herald that he was asked last night if he wanted to be on tonight’s flight and he jumped at the chance, packing his bags and giving away food straight away.

“We can hear the gunshots, we can hear the explosions, we can smell the smoke,” Jones said. “I’m a little anxious because now that’s what’s scary. We left the safe zone to go to the airport.

“Yesterday, the nurses were on their way to work at the hospital and were kidnapped by (men with) machetes during the day,” he said.

Store shelves were empty and food was hard to come by, he said.

Nouema’s international airport, La Tontouta, has been closed since unrest broke out on May 13. The RNZAF Hercules landed at Noumea Magenta Airfield, the island’s national airport, shortly after 5pm.

Around 250 New Zealanders were reported to be on the island, the Foreign Office (MFAT) said.

One stranded Kiwi, who did not want to be named, said he was “very concerned” because the first bus full of evacuees appeared not to be accompanied by a police or military escort between his hotel and the airport.

“The Australians had riot tanks, gendarme (civilian paramilitary) riot police and were well protected. The Kiwis bus waited 50 minutes and decided to leave because it couldn’t wait any longer for the escort,” the New Zealander said anxiously.

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A video that later circulated on social media showed a convoy of buses, with at least one police bicycle at the front of the convoy.

An MFAT official called Jones this morning and arranged for her to be picked up outside her hotel and taken to the airport. However, Jones said she had been waiting for hours to be picked up, which caused more anxiety.

A Royal Australian Air Force Hercules at Magenta Airport in Noumea, New Caledonia, picking up the first group of stranded Australian tourists this afternoon.  The headline says: "Noumea: new military reinforcements deployed".
A Royal Australian Air Force Hercules at Magenta Airport in Noumea, New Caledonia, picking up the first group of stranded Australian tourists this afternoon. The headline reads: “Noumea: new military reinforcements deployed.”

An NZDF C-130 Hercules departs Auckland's RNZAF base at Whenuapai en route to New Caledonia for the first of a series of proposed flights to bring Kiwis home.  Photo / Hayden Woodward
An NZDF C-130 Hercules departs Auckland’s RNZAF base at Whenuapai en route to New Caledonia for the first of a series of proposed flights to bring Kiwis home. Photo / Hayden Woodward

More flights during the week – Peters

There will be more mercy flights throughout the rest of this week, Peters said. He could not say how many flights would be made and said: “We’ll see who wants to come.”

There was “a lot of hard work by the Foreign Affairs team” and others involved in starting the mission to bring the Kiwis home, he said.

Peters welcomed the help of the French authorities, who believed they could ensure safe passage to the airport for the first group of 50 New Zealanders to leave the island.

“The number one goal here is to have New Zealanders in a dangerous situation and our job was to make sure we did everything we could to get them out,” he said.

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“And I’m sure we can do it.”

Foreign Minister Winston Peters speaks to the media in Parliament about the rescue flights to New Caledonia.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Foreign Minister Winston Peters speaks to the media in Parliament about the rescue flights to New Caledonia. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He said the list of New Zealanders wanting help in Noumea was “more than 300”.

Earlier, he said New Zealanders in New Caledonia had faced a difficult few days and bringing them home had been an urgent priority for the Government.

“We would like to thank the relevant authorities, both in Paris and Noumea, for their support in facilitating this flight.

“The situation in New Caledonia remains dynamic and New Zealand officials continue to work with their French counterparts and other partners, especially Australia, to understand what is needed to ensure the safety of our people there.”

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said it was “good news” that the New Zealand plane was on its way.

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There has been a lot of dialogue between New Zealand and French authorities over the past 48 hours, with the main issue revolving around “confidence on the ground” that it was “safe” to land and begin evacuation, as well as earlier travel. to the airport.

“We have been waiting for the French authorities to say it is safe to do so and they have given us those assurances,” Luxon said.

Consular staff will give priority to passengers on later flights, he said.

A building burns in Noumea on May 15 during riots over a proposed change to New Caledonia's constitution.
A building burns in Noumea on May 15 during riots over a proposed change to New Caledonia’s constitution.

Smoke rises during protests in Noumea last week.  Photo / AP
Smoke rises during protests in Noumea last week. Photo / AP

Peters and her Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, met with French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné last night to re-emphasize that both countries shared the urgent need to evacuate their citizens from the island.

Air New Zealand confirmed last night that all commercial flights remained suspended and its next scheduled service would not be until Saturday. Noumea airport remains closed to commercial flights.

Captain David Morgan, Air New Zealand’s director of safety and operational integrity, said flights would resume only “when we can be confident that the airport is safe and there is a safe route for our ground staff and customers to arrive.” to the airport”. .

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Stranded Kiwi Mike Lightfoot told Herald He had been talking to other New Zealanders and Australians, trying not to think about the danger unfolding around him.

“I’ve been having coffee with some this morning and they’re excited to know that there is a plan in place and it started today,” Lightfoot said.