President appeals for calm after Maldives hit by rioting

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The President of the Maldives went on television to appeal for calm yesterday after an unprecedented two days of clashes between police and local people triggered by the deaths of three prisoners.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom announced the opening of an investigation of the events that plunged the tiny Indian Ocean island nation, an increasingly popular destination for western tourists, into chaos over the weekend.

Armoured vehicles were reported to be patrolling the streets of the capital, Male, enforcing a curfew last night after government buildings were attacked and police cars set on fire by angry crowds. The violence was triggered on Friday by the deaths of three inmates of a jail close to the capital, after a protest over alleged torture.

"Most of the people in the mob were people with serious police records," President Gayoom said. "I appeal to the people to remain calm and let me, the elected leader, restore law and order."

According to the relatives of the dead men, they were beaten to death by the police. Other witnesses said that a fight in the prison between two men led to the death of another man at the hands of the police, sparking a riot. The police authorities disputed these claims.

"There has been one death as a result of a clash between prisoners yesterday [Friday] at Maafushi," the Maldivian Information Minister, Ibrahim Manikku, said yesterday.

Five officials from the elite National Security Service, who were allegedly responsible for the torture, were suspended, President Gayoom said.

Friday was the deadline for submitting applications for presidential elections next month, and there was speculation that pro-democracy activists had fuelled the demonstrations.

The predominantly Muslim country has been under one-party rule since Mr Gayoom came to power in 1978, although there is no official ban on political parties. Mr Gayoom is campaigning for a sixth successive term.

The violence continued into Saturday after relatives of the dead men staged a protest against the police and the body of one victim was brought to Male for burial.

Rioters set fire to the Election Commission's office and the High Court. Police vehicles were set ablaze and local people marched through the streets to protest against the police crackdown. Police fired tear-gas at the protesters to force them to disperse. Armed police were on watch to guard the President's palace. There were no reports of any westerners involved in the riots.

Despite its image as a paradise destination for honeymooners, divers and other western tourists, the Maldives has drawn harsh criticism recently for human rights abuses.

In a report published in July this year, Amnesty International accused the government of political repression and torture. Arbitrary detentions, unfair trials and long-term imprisonment of government critics was said to be "endemic" throughout the country's criminal justice system.

The report highlighted the cases of a string of businessmen and artists who have been sentenced with up to life imprisonment on charges of treason, many reporting torture at the hands of the authorities.

The Maldives government has strongly denied the allegations, describing them as "false and baseless".

Anti-government protests are unusual in the Maldives, whose economy depends heavily on tourism.

Officials said international flights were not affected and that there had been no impact on tourists.