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Indian troops to exit Maldives

The withdrawal must meet May deadline

March 10, 2024 00:00:00

MALE, Mar 09 (BBC): India is set to pull its first batch of military personnel from the Maldives on Sunday as the island nation moves closer to China. The phased withdrawal of about 80 Indian troops must meet a May deadline set by President Mohamed Muizzu, who is widely seen to be pro-China.

India has said its military personnel were stationed in the Maldives to maintain and operate two rescue and reconnaissance helicopters and a small aircraft it had donated years ago. Removing Indian troops was an election promise made by Mr Muizzu, who came to power in November.

India has long wielded influence over the Maldives, whose strategic location in its backyard allowed it to monitor a crucial part of the Indian Ocean. But the relationship between the countries has soured over the past few months, partly due to Mr Muizzu's strong rhetoric against Delhi. It's a gap China is looking to exploit as the Asian powers jostle for influence in the region.

Even then, Delhi and Male (the capital of the Maldives) managed to agree that Indian civilian technical staff would replace military troops to operate the aircraft - the first team has already reached the islands.

"The aircraft will remain in the Maldives, and Indian [civilian] personnel will continue to be there to maintain them. So both sides seem to have reached a compromise," says Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary.

Some in the Maldives see the replacement of troops by civilians as a climbdown by Mr Muizzu after his high-voltage 'India Out' campaign. Mr Muizzu's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Some analysts warn that the Maldives, a nation of just over half a million people, faces the risk of being caught up in the Asian power rivalry. China has loaned more than a billion dollars to the Maldives over the years, mostly for infrastructure and economic development.

Both Beijing and Male elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership in January when Mr Muizzu went to China on a state visit - he is yet to visit India, unlike previous Maldivian leaders.

Earlier this week, the Maldivian government signed a "military assistance" agreement with China that has caused some concern in Delhi.

The Maldivian defence ministry said the agreement was "gratis" (without payment) without providing more details. But addressing a public meeting on Tuesday, Mr Muizzu said China would offer non-lethal weapons for free as well as train the Maldivian security forces (both India and the US have trained the Maldivian military so far).

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