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First technical team from India arrives in Maldives

The advanced light helicopter that India provided to the Maldives for operations. File
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

The government confirmed on Thursday that a team of Indian technical personnel have landed in Maldives to replace military troops that have been operating aircraft there. The development indicates a compromise between the Modi government and the recently elected Muizzu government on the contentious issue of Indian troops stationed in the Maldives that had become the target of the “India Out” campaign run by the ruling party. 

“The first team of technical personnel to operate the advanced light helicopter at Gan has reached Maldives. It will replace the existing personnel that were until now operating this platform. So that is where we are,” said Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal in response to questions about the move, that was first announced by the Maldives government on Wednesday. Mr. Jaiswal did not indicate the number of troops being replaced in the first batch, of a total 88 Indian military personnel understood to be stationed in the Maldives.

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The confirmation also marks a major climbdown by New Delhi, that had earlier refused to withdraw the troops, including in 2018 when former President Abdulla Yameen had demanded the removal of Indian military personnel on several occasions, even refusing to extend their visas. After Mr. Yameen was defeated in elections by President Ibu Solih, the issue had subsided, but was revived as a campaign plank by President Mohammad Muizzu, who won elections in November 2023 and made the return of Indian military personnel a “priority”.

The announcement on the first batch of replacements comes ahead of the March 10 “deadline” that the Maldives government had reportedly given India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with President Muizzu in early December, and the leaders set up a high-level “core group” to discuss the issue. While the Maldivian government repeatedly said that the decision to replace troops with civilian technical personnel had been taken, New Delhi had been tight-lipped on the matter, saying only that the two sides were seeking “workable” and “mutually acceptable” solutions. 

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On February 4, however, Mr. Muizzu surprised many by announcing to the Maldivian Majlis or parliament that a deal had indeed been struck.

“As per the most recent discussions, military personnel on one of the three aviation platforms will be recalled before March 10, 2024. The military personnel on the remaining two platforms will also be recalled by May 10, 2024,” Mr. Muizzu had said. Subsequently the MEA had said that the troops would be replaced by “competent technical personnel”, but refused to comment on whether they would be civilian or military. 

The differences over the troops issue had led to other acrimonious exchanges between the two countries in January, and Maldives had skipped a key security conference in Mauritius, for the Colombo Security Dialogue, and downgraded its presence at the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth.  With the first step towards resolving the contentious issue seemingly taken,  India and Maldives indicated that they were restoring progress in some of their other areas of strategic cooperation. On Sunday, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives completed the latest round of biennial trilateral maritime exercises called “Dosti-16” held between their coast guard services. Speaking at the inauguration of the exercises, where Bangladesh participated as an observer, Maldivian Defence Minister Mohamed Ghassan Maumoon said that the Muizzu government “places the highest priority on ensuring that close relations, peace and stability is maintained between Maldives and neighbouring nations”.

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