Maldives asks India to withdraw troops by March 15 by MEERA SRINIVASAN

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President of the Maldives Mohamed Muizzu. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Demand comes on the heels of Mr. Muizzu’s state visit to China; after high-level meet, MEA says officials discussed “mutually workable solution”; Maldivian Ministry says “both sides… agreed to fast-track withdrawal”

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu has asked India to withdraw its troops from the island nation by March 15, a top official said on Sunday, posing the latest in a series of diplomatic challenges from Malé to New Delhi since his September election win.

Abdullah Nazim Ibrahim, the Principal Secretary to President Muizzu on Public Policy, told a media conference at the Presidential Palace in Malé that Indian military personnel will no longer be permitted to reside in the Maldives, and that the troops have been asked to leave by March 15, 2024, according to Malé-based media.

The senior official’s announcement was made even as the India-Maldives High Level Core Group — set up when the Maldivian President and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met on the sidelines of the UN climate summit in Dubai — held its first meeting, in Malé.

Strained ties

It comes amid growing strain in ties between the neighbours, triggered most recently by the remarks of three junior ministers in the Muizzu administration, who criticised Indians and Mr. Modi over his Lakshadweep visit.

The announcement also comes on the heels of Mr. Muizzu’s five-day state visit to China, where he agreed to “elevate” strategic ties with Beijing. On his return on Saturday, he told local media that the Maldives may be small, but “will not be bullied” by anyone.

Divergent narratives

However, a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after the Core Group meeting on Sunday evening made no mention of a request for Indian troops’ withdrawal. Instead, it noted that both sides discussed “finding [a] mutually workable solution to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medvac [medical evacuation] services to the people of Maldives.”

In contrast, the press statement issued by the Maldives’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Both sides expressed willingness to intensify cooperation and agreed to fast-track the withdrawal of Indian military personnel,” revealing a stark difference in their messaging. Both statements referenced a review of bilateral cooperation.

MEA officials did not respond to The Hindu’s queries on whether the Ministry has received a formal request for the withdrawal of Indian soldiers. According to the Maldives government, India has around 88 soldiers stationed in the Maldives. New Delhi has maintained that most of them are technical staff, engaged predominantly in maintaining aircraft gifted by India.

Consistent demand

Veteran Indian diplomat Rakesh Sood said that Mr. Muizzu was “playing to his base and presumably, his ‘benefactor’.” He added: “He is being deliberately provocative but there is little to be gained by India engaging in tit-for-tat rhetoric. Far better to let him realise the relevance of India to Maldives, in socio-economic terms.”

The Maldivian president has been consistent in his demand for Indian troops’ withdrawal, his chief poll pledge last year. The demand also figured in his inaugural address soon after he assumed office in November 2023. In December, days after his meeting with Mr. Modi in Dubai, Mr. Muizzu announced that India had “agreed” to withdraw its troops, although New Delhi has made no statement to that effect so far. Meanwhile, the High-Level Core Group was set up with top officials from both sides to negotiate the matter, among other key bilateral concerns.

(With inputs from Kallol Bhattacherjee in New Delhi)

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