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First Kiwis stranded in New Caledonia expected back in NZ tonight

Anneke Smith, Political reporter

The first New Zealanders evacuated from New Caledonia should be back in Auckland tonight.

A C-130 Hercules took off for Nouméa this afternoon in what is the first of a series of flights to help those stranded.

"It's fully expected they'll be back in Auckland tonight," Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters told reporters.

Since Peters' briefing, the NZDF Hercules has landed at Noumea's Magenta airport, and began its return flight - first of a series to pick up stranded travellers - about 7pm.

It is a domestic airport much closer to the city than the international airport, which is still closed.

Peters said the NZDF has had to take a smaller plane so around 50 people will be on the first flight.

Peters said New Zealand was working with Australia, having received requests for help from other countries.

"Pacific Island countries need our help and indeed I can tell you countries you'd be most surprised about have also asked for help.

"We're going to get the job done and when we have we'll tell you what the details are."

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Peters said the Defence Force had been poised to start evacuations but had to wait until the French government gave them the green light.

"We were charged with action getting our team ready and within an hour of knowing, that plane was on its way."

"It's been a lot of hard work by the Foreign Affairs team and all those involved, including waiting up until 2.30am last night to find out what the last message might be."

He would not be drawn on whether or not the approval for passage through Magenta Airport - a domestic airport about 4km from the centre of Nouméa - could have come through faster.

"The reality is they've got to make sure the roads are clear, that we can get people safely from where most of them are to Magenta Airport.

"That's a size matter for our aeroplanes and so that's why we're constricted to what we've got here now.

"We've got to trust that the flag's gone up because they can be certain it will be safe but you never know.

"It's a difficult circumstance. I'm just grateful for their help and their cooperation."

It was likely the next flight would leave for Noumea on Wednesday morning, he said.

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