Indian troops begin Maldives pullout after quit order

by AFP Staff Writers

Male, Maldives (AFP) Mar 12, 2024

India has begun withdrawing military personnel operating surveillance aircraft in the Maldives after the new pro-China president ordered them to leave, local media reported Tuesday.

The Mihaaru newspaper reported that 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.

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.

Following talks with New Delhi, the two sides had agreed to complete a withdrawal of 89 Indian troops and their support staff from the nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands by May 10.

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

There was no official confirmation from either the Maldivian or Indian authorities, but Mihaaru said the Maldivian National Defence Force confirmed the Indian withdrawal had begun.

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 the economy, is also strategically placed halfway along key east-west international shipping routes.

Relations between Male and New Delhi have chilled since Muizzu won elections in September.

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.

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.


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