A hard-line nationalist Thursday shot and killed the leader of pro-independence forces in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia and one of his top aides, officials said.

The assailant was severely wounded by bodyguards of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, 53, president of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, officials said.High Commissioner Bernard Grasset, New Caledonia's top administrator, said Tjibaou and his assistant, Yeiwene Yeiwene, were shot by Djubelly Wea of the United Front for Kanak Liberation, an extremist faction that considers Tjibaou too moderate.

Grasset said Wea and two unidentifed accomplices were shot and badly wounded by the bodyguards. Grasset said an investigation was opened and the wounded men would be brought back to Noumea.

Leaders of the assassin's group Thursday announced they are breaking from a nationalist coalition led by Tjibaou.

The United Front wants independence at any cost, including violent action, while Tjibaou, in a surprise move last year, agreed to a French proposal that includes a referendum in 1998 to decide whether the territory will become independent or remain part of France.

The assassinations occurred on the outlying island of Ouvea, the scene last year of bloody clashes between nationalists and French soldiers that left 25 people dead, including six soldiers.