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18 April 2024

New Maldives leader vows unity after coup claims


The new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Waheed, vowed to form a "multi-party" unity government Wednesday, even as his predecessor suggested he was involved in a coup plot to seize power.

Waheed, the former vice president, was sworn in Tuesday hours after the dramatic resignation of Mohamed Nasheed following weeks of anti-government protests and a police mutiny on the Indian Ocean holiday islands.

Speaking at his first press conference since taking office, Waheed denied accusations that the former president had been overthrown in a takeover orchestrated by opposition leaders and the security forces.

"It is wrong to describe the events as a coup. We did not know this was going to happen. I was unprepared," he said.

However, in an exclusive interview with AFP, Nasheed insisted that he had been forced into resigning by a group of rebel police and army officers who had threatened a bloodbath if he refused.

"They told me if I didn't resign they would resort to use arms," Nasheed told AFP by telephone from a family property in the capital Male.

He added that he feared Waheed "was in on it" and had seized the chance to take over.

"I am afraid he's always entertained an idea to become the president. He's never been able to do that. When the opportunity was available to him, he took it," he said.

The army on Tuesday had categorically denied playing any coercive role in the former president's decision to step down.

In his press conference, Waheed said he would appoint a "truly multi-party cabinet" in the next few days, and was in talks with all groups including Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The MDP had released statements late Tuesday, condemning what it called a "coup d'etat" and accusing the police of beating up a number of its MPs and trashing its party headquarters.

Male was calm Wednesday, but there was added security with checkpoints set up in and around the police and military headquarters.

The weeks of protests that led to Nasheed's downfall had erupted after he ordered the army to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed on charges of misconduct and favouring opposition figures.

Opposition parties accused him of trampling over the constitution, and the demonstrations were swelled by religious conservatives who regarded his regime as un-Islamic.

Waheed said Wednesday that Islamic parties "will be represented" in his new cabinet, adding that they are "part of our society and can't be ignored".

Islam is the official religion of the Maldives and open practice of any other religion is forbidden and liable to prosecution.

Tuesday's events marked a spectacular fall for Nasheed.

The 44-year-old rose to power from grassroots opposition to the 30-year autocratic regime of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who imprisoned him on several occasions.

His clear victory over Gayoom in the country's first free elections in 2008 was hailed as heralding a new era of democracy and progressive politics.

He used his mandate to build a reputation internationally as a committed campaigner against climate change and once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the dangers of rising sea levels.

But economic problems and high inflation damaged his popular standing, while Islamic activists attacked him on religious issues, including flights arriving with Israeli tourists and "improper" social conduct on island resorts.

After his resignation, police said they found alcohol -- which is illegal in the capital Male -- at Nasheed's residence. Officers were shown on national television carrying away bottles.

The Maldives, a nation of almost 1,200 islands on the equator, is dependent on tourism and is famous for its upmarket holiday resorts and hotels that cater to honeymooning couples and high-end travellers.

Waheed said he wanted to reassure the tourism industry that his government was committed to its protection and development.

UN Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco was due to arrive in the Maldives late Wednesday for talks on the political crisis that had been scheduled before Tuesday's power transition.