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New Caledonia independence group demands Indigenous leader's release from custody in mainland France


NICE, France (AP) — Members of a pro-independence movement in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia demanded on Monday the "release and immediate return” of the Indigenous Kanak leader who was flown to mainland France for pretrial detention after recent deadly unrest.

Christian Tein, a leader of the movement known as The Field Action Coordination Unit, was flown out overnight Saturday, along with six other activists whom French authorities accuse of orchestrating the two weeks of unrest in May that left nine people dead, caused widespread destruction and led French President Emmanuel Macron to make an emergency visit.

“We demand the release and immediate return of our brothers and sisters to be judged in their homeland," the movement said in an statement. It condemned the activists' arrest and their transfer into custody 17,000 kilometers (10,500 miles) away and accused Macron's government of deploying “colonial tactics” in New Caledonia.

The Kanak people have long sought to break free from France, which first took the Pacific archipelago in 1853 and granted citizenship to all Kanaks in 1957. The latest violence flared on May 13 in response to attempts by Macron’s government to amend the French Constitution and change voting lists in New Caledonia, which Kanaks feared would further marginalize them.

France declared a state of emergency two days later, rushing in 3,500 troops to help police quell the clashes, looting and arson.

Tein and nine other pro-independence leaders were placed under house arrest when the violence started. Tein was among pro-independence leaders who met with Macron during his visit to New Caledonia last month. After the meeting, the Kanak leader appealed to protesters to “maintain all (forms) of resistance” to achieve the main objective of “full independence.”

New Caledonia’s public prosecutor, Yves Dupas, said the transfer of the activists to mainland France will allow the investigation to continue “in a calm manner and without any pressure.”

The prosecutor did not name the other six activists. Reports in French media suggested they include the pro-independence group’s communications director, Brenda Wanabo, and Frédérique Muliava, chief of staff to the president of New Caledonia’s Congress.

Tein’s group called the Kanak activists who were arrested last week “political prisoners” and described the government charges against them as "intolerable, unacceptable and above all unjust and unjustified.”

The charges the seven face include complicity in attempted murder, organized theft with a weapon, organized destruction of private property while endangering people and participation in a criminal group with an intent to plan a crime.

Tein’s group also accused French police and army troops of using “disproportionate force” against the pro-independence protesters and vowed that “the Kanak people will never give up on their desire for independence with peaceful means."

In the past seven months, The Field Action Coordination Unit has organized peaceful marches in New Caledonia against French authorities and the Paris-backed voting reform.

With France now plunged into campaigning for snap parliamentary elections, Macron suspended the changes to voting rights in New Caledonia.

French Interior and Overseas Territories Minister Gérald Darmanin said last month that Tein's party was a “small group which calls itself pro-independence but instead commits looting, murder and violence.”

The National Council of Chiefs of the Indigenous Kanak people rejected allegations that the party was involved in the deadly violence. Grand Chief Hippolyte Sinewami-Htamumu expressed full support for the group, which has mobilized more than 100,000 people “of all ages and from all backgrounds” in the capital, Nouméa, and elsewhere.