A top U.S. diplomat arrived in the Maldives on Saturday seeking to help resolve a deepening political crisis sparked by the ousting of the Indian Ocean nation’s first democratically elected president.
Mohamed Nasheed, who came to power in 2008, says he was forced to resign on Tuesday in a coup d’état led by mutinous army and police officers who threatened him with violence unless he stepped down.
He was replaced as head of state by his vice president Mohamed Waheed, whom Nasheed accuses of being party to the conspiracy to topple him.
The U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Robert Blake, will seek to clarify how power was transferred during a visit to the crowded capital of the famous holiday islands, the state department announced.
“Ambassador Blake will meet the president as well as the opposition during his 12-hour visit,” a U.S. official in the capital island Male told AFP.
Since stepping down, Nasheed has called for fresh elections and has threatened protests if the police continue targeting his party members and figures in his former administration.
Rioting erupted across the country on Wednesday when Nasheed publicly said he was the victim of a military-backed coup and senior members of his party were beaten during a rally in Male.
At least 18 police stations were torched and dozens of vehicles, court houses and government buildings were destroyed some of the remote islets of the archipelago, police say.
“We are losing a country as we speak,” he said, describing the attack as retaliation. Police said his supporters razed at least 20 government buildings on Wednesday night.
The Maldivian police confirmed they were carrying out mass arrests of troublemakers while Nasheed said 350 people linked to his administration had been detained within three days of his resignation.
New President Waheed has rejected Nasheed’s demand for elections.
“Simply because an ex-president wants an election we can’t have one just like that,” Waheed’s spokesman Masood Imad told AFP. “There is a constitutional process.”
Imad said Waheed had no intention of clinging on to power and would hold the next election when it is due, by November 2013.
New protests would spell further instability and damage for the country which depends on the hundreds of thousands of high-end travellers and honeymooners who visit its pristine islands each year.
Nasheed’s efforts to force Waheed to step down suffered a major blow Thursday when Washington announced it recognized his successor’s administration as legitimate.
Nasheed, a former political prisoner and climate change campaigner, voiced disappointment at the announcement and the U.S. later appeared to step back from its earlier declaration.
“We will work with the government of the Maldives, but believe that the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power need to be clarified,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
“And we also suggest that all parties agree to an independent mechanism to do that.”
“He (Blake) will see all of the major players and have a chance to talk about an appropriate way forward and reconciliation and national unity mechanism.”
Nasheed said Friday that recognition of the new Male administration would not help resolve the crisis.
“Stripped and hand-cuffed”
The former president claimed police “stripped and hand-cuffed” his supporters and ransacked homes in Addu, the southernmost atoll, and said he would travel there in the next 24 hours unless the crackdown stopped.
A U.N. special envoy, Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, arrived in the Maldives Friday and met both sides, diplomatic sources said.
A European Union and Indian delegation are also due to visit.
Diplomatic pressure has been applied to prevent police acting on an arrest warrant for Nasheed issued by a local criminal court on Thursday, diplomatic sources said.
Presidential spokesman Imad said police were obliged to execute the arrest warrant only if they felt there was a risk that Nasheed would not appear in court to answer charges which are yet to be made public.
“He can go anywhere in the country, but he can’t leave the country,” Imad said.
The Maldives, for almost nine centuries a sultanate before it became a British protectorate, held its first fully democratic elections in 2008. Nasheed defeated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who at 30 years in power was then Asia’s longest-serving leader and accused of running the country as a dictator.
Security forces, a group of whom Nasheed accused of conspiring with political rivals to usurp him under the guise of a constitutional handover to his vice president, took no chances during Friday prayers.
An Indian government official said Indian ships were close by and monitoring the situation and could help with the evacuation of tourists if the situation worsened.
India saw the events in the Maldives as its internal affair, the official said, adding that India hoped elections would be held at the earliest date to the satisfaction of all political parties.