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Pacific countries call for calm as New Caledonia riots continue

SYDNEY (Reuters) -- New Caledonia's Pacific neighbours called for de-escalation and a return to dialogue between France and the island territory's political parties, after a third night of violent riots that have killed four people and led to hundreds of arrests.

France declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia that came into force at 5 a.m., giving authorities additional powers to ban gatherings and forbid people from moving around the island.

Rioting broke out over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that will let French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections -- a move some local leaders fear will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

The protests were organised by Field Action Co-ordination Cell (CCAT), which was condemned on Thursday by France's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, who differentiated the organisation from the major pro-independence political party, FLNKS, which has called for calm.

Reuters was unable to reach representatives of CCAT for comment.

Armed forces were protecting New Caledonia's two airports and port, Le Franc said, adding that at least four alleged instigators were under house arrest.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decadeslong tussle over France's role in the mineral-rich island, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 kilometers east of Australia.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters called for all sides to de-escalate a situation that was "of serious concern across the Pacific Islands region."

Vanuatu's prime minister, Charlot Salwai, chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which also includes Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, said the indiscriminate destruction of property would affect New