By Mohamed Junayd
MALE (Reuters) -The Maldives has called for India to withdraw troops from its territory by March 15, an official said on Sunday, in a step that will further strain ties between the South Asian neighbours.
President Mohamed Muizzu won election last year on a pledge to end the Maldives’ “India first” policy, in a region where New Delhi and Beijing compete for influence.
A contingent of around 80 Indian soldiers are stationed on the Indian Ocean archipelago to provide support for military equipment given to the Maldives by New Delhi and assist in humanitarian activities in the region.
In talks at the foreign ministry between senior delegations from both countries, Muizzu proposed that the soldiers leave.
“In this meeting, on behalf of President Muizzu, the Maldivian delegation proposed the removal of Indian troops by March 15,” Ahmed Nazim, Policy Director at the President’s Office told reporters.
“This date was proposed in the agenda by the government and specifically the president. These discussions are ongoing.”
In his campaign, Muizzu called New Delhi’s huge influence a threat to sovereignty and pledged to remove Indian troops.
“The most important point to note here is that Indian troops cannot stay in the Maldives. That’s the policy of this government. It is also the president’s pledge and what the people of Maldives want,” Nazim added.
India’s foreign ministry confirmed that a wide range of issues on bilateral cooperation were discussed between the two countries but the statement was quiet on the issue of the soldiers departure from the islands.
“Both sides also held discussions on finding mutually workable solutions to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms that provide humanitarian and medvac services to the people of Maldives,” the statement said.
China and the Maldives upgraded their relationship during Muizzu’s first state visit to Beijing last week by agreeing to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” that sets the stage for the Asian giant to up its investments in the Maldives.
The Maldives owes China $1.37 billion, equivalent to around 20% of its public debt, according to World Bank data.
(Additional reporting by Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi; Writing by Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo; Editing by Ros Russell)