India Sends Troops to Maldives to Crush Coup Attempt by Invading Mercenaries
India, apparently alarmed at signs of another trouble spot erupting in South Asia, flew troops to the Maldives on Thursday after mercenary gunmen tried to topple the government.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responded within hours to an appeal for help by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, sending 1,600 paratroops and commandos to crush a coup attempt on the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Two officials reported that Gayoom was safe. But at least 25 people were reported killed when a force estimated at 400 men attacked Male, a city of 55,000, before dawn Thursday. Fighting reportedly continued through the day.
The hired attackers were thought to be Tamils from Sri Lanka, about 400 miles east of Maldives in the Indian Ocean, diplomatic sources in Colombo said.
A senior Sri Lankan military official said that former President Ibrahim Nasir of the Maldives was behind the attempt to overthrow Gayoom, who succeeded Nasir in 1978 and was reelected to a third five-year term Sept. 23.
An Indian Defense Ministry spokesman said the paratroopers were under orders to launch an assault on installations seized by the gunmen and free an unknown number of hostages.
Some Invaders Flee
Some mercenaries fled by boat, a Maldivian security official said. He said he saw Indian troops in the streets of Male but he did not know what happened to any remaining mercenaries.
Three Indian frigates carrying arms and supplies were also heading for the islands 600 miles southwest of India. The official in New Delhi said they would secure the sea around the Maldives from any further threat to the Gayoom government.
Gayoom appealed to India, Britain and the United States for help. But London and Washington made clear they had no plans to give military assistance after India had sent troops.
Maldives is not aligned with either of the superpowers, but maintains friendly relations with both.
India, which already has more than 50,000 troops in Sri Lanka to help stamp out a Tamil separatist campaign, responded swiftly because it feared the Maldives could become another area of instability in the region, political analysts said.
Ahmed Abdullah Aziz, the Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka, said the mercenaries spoke Tamil. A Western diplomat said they were recruited from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest Tamil guerrilla group waging a separatist war in Sri Lanka. The Tamils, mainly Hindus, charge discrimination by the country’s majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhists.
There were no reports of foreigners among the casualties, and Male residents said by telephone that the shooting had become sporadic by nightfall.
The Maldives U.N. ambassador said in New York that government forces had regained full control of their headquarters and the international airport on a nearby island. But he said the mercenaries still held the radio station.
At one stage, diplomats in Colombo said the gunmen were threatening to slaughter 2,000 hostages, including members of Parliament, civil servants and police if the government did not surrender.
They later appeared to relent and released some women. Residents of the capital said some of the attackers toured the city to reassure its residents that they did not wish to harm civilians.
Power Supply Cut
Dr. Sharad Sapra, a UNICEF official in Male since February, said he saw three bodies in the streets of the capital. Power supplies were cut at 7 a.m. and the gunmen, some wearing military uniforms and some in civilian clothes, massed at police headquarters.
Another witness said the invaders had taken over the hospital and were using ambulances for transport.
Maldives has a population of about 189,000, most of them Sunni Muslims, spread across a 500-mile chain of small, low-lying coral islands known for fishing and glistening tourist beaches.
Gayoom was to be inaugurated for his third five-year term Nov. 11. In the September vote, he won 96.37% of the vote in a referendum in which he was the only candidate.
The bespectacled, scholarly president is credited with opening up the Maldives to tourism, which with fishing provides the bulk of the islands’ income.
The Tigers, who are fighting for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, are under heavy pressure there from more than 50,000 Indian troops brought in under a 1987 pact with Colombo to end the rebellion.
“Indian troops who have been fighting the Tigers in Sri Lanka will now be taking them on in the Maldives. Very fascinating,” one diplomat said.