Indian troops begin Maldives pullout after quit order


The Maldives signed a “military assistance” deal with China as the Indians prepared to leave. – AFP photo

MALE (March 13): India has begun withdrawing military personnel operating surveillance aircraft in the Maldives after the new pro-China president ordered them to leave, defence authorities said Tuesday.

An official of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) said 25 Indian troops deployed in the southernmost atoll of Addu had left the archipelago ahead of March 10, the official start of the withdrawal agreed by both sides.

“We can confirm that the Indian troop withdrawal is underway,” the MNDF said in a statement to AFP.

President Mohamed Muizzu came to power in September on a pledge to kick out Indian security personnel deployed in the Maldives to patrol its vast maritime border.

The two sides had agreed to complete a withdrawal of 89 Indian troops and their support staff in the Maldives by May 10.

Local officials said the three Indian aircraft — two helicopters and one fixed-wing plane — will be operated by Indian civilian staff, who have already arrived.

Last week, the Maldives signed a “military assistance” deal with China as the Indians prepared to leave.

The Maldivian defence ministry said the deal was to foster “stronger bilateral ties” and that China would train its staff under the pact.

– ‘Territorial sovereignty’ –

“We support the Maldives in safeguarding its territorial sovereignty,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

“We also support the Maldives in developing friendly exchanges and cooperation with all parties on the basis of its independence and autonomy.”

India is suspicious of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in the Maldives as well as in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

The archipelago, better known for its white sand beaches and where tourism accounts for nearly a third of its economy, is also strategically placed halfway along key east-west international shipping routes.

Relations between Male and New Delhi have chilled since Muizzu took office.

New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean archipelago to be within its sphere of influence, but the Maldives has shifted into the orbit of China — its largest external creditor.

Muizzu, who visited Beijing in January where he signed a raft of infrastructure, energy, marine and agricultural deals, has previously denied seeking to redraw the regional balance by bringing in Chinese forces to replace Indian troops.

The Maldives is set to hold parliamentary elections on April 21, the first national poll after Muizzu won the September presidential election on a promise to get rid of the Indians.

India last month said it was bolstering its naval forces on its “strategically important” Lakshadweep islands, about 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of the Maldives.

The Indian naval unit based on the island of Minicoy will boost “operational surveillance” of the area, the navy said. – AFP