BBC News

Australians evacuated from New Caledonia after being stranded during more than a week of violent protests have been expressing their relief at returning home.

Two Royal Australian Air Force planes landed in Brisbane on Tuesday night, carrying 108 Australians and other tourists stranded by the closure of the French Pacific territory’s international airport.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand military flew 48 people into Auckland.

France has said it expects to evacuate around 500 people on military aircraft – starting on Wednesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron is on his way to the territory – which has seen its most serious unrest in decades – and will arrive on Thursday.

He’ll be accompanied others including by the country’s interior minister and armed forces minister to set up a dialogue mission.

His travel to the riot-hit island comes after more than a week of unrest there over his government’s voting reform plans, which have been rejected by indigenous Kanaks.

Indigenous leaders say the plans, which will allow more French residents to vote in local elections, will dilute the political influence of native people.

Among the 108 people on the Australia-assisted rescue flights were Mary Hatten and her family, who were on holiday in the usually idyllic destination.

"By [last] Tuesday morning… the place was just in a mess, which was very sad for the locals, for the tourist industry, and I suppose to some extent for our own personal enjoyment. We were pretty much confined to the hotel," Ms Hatten told the ABC.

"When we landed [in Brisbane] it was just like: ‘Oh, thank God we’re here!’"

Others evacuated have a long connection to New Caledonia.

Gary Salmon, who lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland, said he had been working in the nickel mining industry in New Caledonia for 20 years.

"It’s very unfortunate what’s happening there at the moment, it’s such a beautiful country," he said to the ABC.

"I’d hate to estimate the damage over there, it won’t be millions, it’ll be billions."

Many Australians remain in New Caledonia – with around 300 having registered as being stuck in or close to the capital, Noumea.

"We continue to work with partners on further flights, prioritising passengers based on need," Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a statement on social media.

Meanwhile New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the government was "working with France and Australia on a further flight [on Wednesday] to bring another group of Kiwis in New Caledonia home via Brisbane, using French and New Zealand aircraft."

Evacuation flights will continue "until the reopening of La Tontouta International Airport", the French High Commission in Noumea said on Wednesday.

In its daily update on the crisis, it said that 84 police officers and gendarmes had now been injured since the start of the disturbances, with more than 280 rioters arrested, including more than 20 on Tuesday.

A state of emergency remains in place – which includes a night-time curfew and a ban on gatherings and the sale of alcohol.

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