'Mandela of the Maldives' forced out by police coup

Leader who brought democracy to islands steps down following weeks of protest

President Mohamed Nasheed, the man who earned a broad international profile for helping secure democracy in the Maldives and highlighting the threat to his country from climate change, has been forced to step down after weeks of opposition protests culminated in a mutiny by police. Supporters of the President said he was the victim of what amounted to a coup.

The former political prisoner who some nicknamed the "Mandela of the Maldives" announced his resignation during a live television broadcast yesterday, saying he would rather stand down than use force against his own citizens. Foreign tourists who flock to the nation's luxury resorts were not believed to be in any danger.

"I resign because I am not a person who wishes to rule with the use of power. I believe that if the government were to remain in power it would require the use of force which would harm many citizens," he said. "I resign because I believe that if the government continues to stay in power, it is very likely that we may face foreign influences."

The British-educated, former journalist was the first democratically elected leader of the Muslim Indian Ocean nation of more than 1,200 islands. But his opponents had recently been holding daily demonstrations and seized on the President's decision to arrest and detain a judge – accusing him of acting undemocratically.

Among the protesters were members of the police force and yesterday they gathered outside the military headquarters where Mr Nasheed was seeking refuge, in the capital, Male. The mutinying police set fire to an office of Mr Nasheed's party and seized control of the state broadcaster.

Soldiers fired tear gas at the police and demonstrators who besieged the military facilities, many of then chanting the name of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the former President who served for 30 years and whom Mr Nasheed beat in a 2008 election. A number of reports have suggested the military persuaded Mr Nasheed to step down.

Last night, the country's Vice-President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, was sworn into office. It is expected he will oversee a coalition administration until elections are held.

Mr Nasheed was apparently in protective custody, something disputed by his brother, who told the BBC he was being held against his will.

Mr Nasheed could not be contacted. But a source close to the former President told The Independent that police had taken control of all television and radio stations and that officials who worked for Mr Nasheed were not being allowed to leave. "It's a coup. Elements of the former regime brought down the country's first democratically elected President," said the source, who asked not to be identified.

Internationally, Mr Nasheed became an energetic environmental crusader, founding the Climate Vulnerable Forum to co-ordinate environmental policy among a group of about 30 countries most affected by climate change.

He held a cabinet meeting underwater in scuba gear to dramatise the threat of rising oceans to his low-lying archipelago nation, 80 per cent of which is no more than a metre above sea level, and said he might need to relocate his entire population if nothing was done. He also announced plans to make his nation carbon-neutral, using wind and solar projects.

A documentary about his efforts, The Island President, won awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals and opens next month in New York.

But protests against Mr Nasheed and his Maldives Democratic Party have been growing. Opponents condemned a government decision to arrest and detain Abdulla Mohamed, a senior judge who had ordered the release of a government critic.

Many voices, human rights campaigners among them, called for the judge's release. The government said the judge was biased.

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