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Sunday, November 8, 1998 Published at 16:08 GMT

World: Europe

New Caledonia votes for autonomy

From the BBC's correspondent in Paris, Stephen Jessel

Voters in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific have given overwhelming backing in a referendum to proposals that could lead, in 15-20 years' time, to independence.

The massive "yes" vote of 71.8% and the high turnout of almost 75%, should mark the end of a long and often violent chapter in the history of New Caledonia, a cluster of islands 18,000 km (11,250 miles) from Paris and 2,000 km from the Australian city of Sydney. The territory has been French since 1853, and has major nickel deposits.

President Jacques Chirac of France expressed "delight that Caledonians have made the choice of consensus and responsibility in preparing their future," the president's office said.

The people

The territory's population of 185,000 is made up of Melanesians, or Kanaks, who represent about 45%, Europeans, most of them born in the territory, who account for about a third of the inhabitants, and people from other parts of the South Pacific and from South East Asia.

There have been tensions between the Kanaks and Europeans for many years, and demands for independence from the Kanak community. After a particularly bloody incident in 1988 a referendum was organised to give the territory a new status and to provide for a second referendum to be held this year.

The road to independence

With the "yes" vote in this second referendum, the people of New Caledonia have opted for greater autonomy and a gradual move to virtual independence, which will be the subject of a third referendum in 15 or 20 years' time.

The main political parties representing both the Kanaks and the Europeans back the plan and called for a "yes" vote. The campaign was, however, slightly overshadowed by industrial unrest and the collapse in the world market price of nickel, of which the territory has major reserves.

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