Maldives Asks India to Withdraw Troops by March 15 Amid Diplomatic Tensions

Maldives and India have set up a high-level core group to negotiate the withdrawal of troops

NEW DELHI: Amid diplomatic tensions, the Maldives on Sunday reportedly asked India at the first meeting of a newly-constituted joint “high-level core group” to withdraw its small contingent of troops – which had been operating two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft for medical evacuations and contingency operations in the archipelago nation -- from there by March 15, Maldivian media reports said Sunday. India did not directly comment on the reported two month-long deadline set for it but only said that “both sides also held discussions (at the meeting) on finding a mutually workable solution to enable the continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medical evacuation services to the people of the Maldives”. New Delhi further said: “It was agreed to hold the next meeting of the high-level core group in India on a mutually convenient date”.

In its statement issued on Sunday evening, the MEA also said: “The first meeting of the India-Maldives High-Level Core Group was held in (the Maldivian capital) Male today. During the meeting, both sides held discussions on wide-ranging issues related to bilateral cooperation towards identifying steps to enhance the partnership, including expediting the implementation of ongoing development cooperation projects.”

This comes a day after Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu hurled a fresh thinly-veiled barb at India soon after his return from China, by claiming his country would not be “bullied” and that the Indian Ocean does not belong to any single country. Mr Muizzu, widely perceived to be an anti-India and pro-China leader, had won the presidential polls in his country late last year and had pledged to evict the small Indian troop contingent from his tiny nation that is India’s south-western maritime neighbour.

At a press briefing, Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim, public policy secretary at the President’s Office, said that President Muizzu has formally asked India to withdraw its military personnel by March 15, the Maldivian SunOnline newspaper reported, according to media reports. “Indian military personnel cannot stay in the Maldives. This is the policy of President Mohamed Muizzu and that of this administration,” he was quoted as saying. A high-level core group formed by the two nations last month following the Maldivian demand for withdrawal of troops held its first meeting at the foreign ministry in Male on Sunday morning. This was also attended by Indian high commissioner Munu Mahawar, the Maldivian media report said, adding Mr Ibrahim confirmed the meeting and said the agenda for the meeting was the request to withdraw troops by March 15.
In highly provocative remarks earlier on Saturday soon after his return from Beijing, the Maldivian President was quoted as saying: “We may be small but this doesn’t give them the licence to bully us… This ocean (Indian Ocean) does not belong to a specific country. This ocean also belongs to all countries situated in it.” He further reportedly said that the Maldives is one of the countries with “the biggest share” of the Indian Ocean.

Soon after his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the COP28 summit in Dubai early last month, Mr Muizzu had claimed that India has agreed to remove its soldiers from the tiny archipelago nation. But Indian government sources thereafter had said that “discussions are on” on how to keep Indian humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) assistance to the Maldives “operational” using “Indian platforms”, an obvious reference to the two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft reportedly operated by Indian armed forces personnel there till now. Sources had also acknowledged that the issue had been “briefly discussed” at the meeting between the two leaders in Dubai. Sources had then said: “The Maldivian side has acknowledged the utility of these platforms. The fact that it is an important segment of our bilateral development partnership is recognised by both sides. Discussions on how to keep them operational are ongoing. The core group that both sides have agreed to set up will look at details of how to take this forward.”

In an open snub to India last week, President Muizzu had appealed to Beijing for its “unwavering support” and described China as his nation's “closest” partner in development, adding that Beijing should once again “regain” the pre-Covid position of the topmost tourism market for the Maldives. He further praised the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connectivity project that he said were in “alignment” with key projects in his country and hailed the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as “close political ties” between his country and Beijing. The remarks made by the Maldivian President in Fujian province further complicated ties between India and the Maldives, especially in the context of slanderous remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi made recently by the now-suspended three Maldivian deputy ministers that had led to a reported spate of cancellations by Indian tourists after an outcry in the social media.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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