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The longest-serving leader in Asia fights for a seventh term

The President of the Maldives is facing a mutiny, with the resignation of three key cabinet ministers in protest at his "autocratic" behaviour. One of them is preparing to stand against him in forthcoming elections.

The beautiful Indian Ocean islands, a luxury holiday destination for Britons and many other wealthy Westerners, has a less-publicised dark side with claims of repression, torture, censorship and, recently, terrorist bombing.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the longest-serving leader in Asia, deflected international criticism of his human rights record by agreeing to sweeping reforms, a new constitution and saying he would step down after 29 years in power.

The cabinet resignations came after the President, who is 76, changed his mind and said he would carry on in office for another five years.

The Justice minister, Hassan Saeed, the attorney general Mohammed Jameel and the Foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed, all in their late thirties and early forties, said other members of the government were likely to follow them by resigning before the election scheduled for next year.

The defection of the three ministers is a serious blow for Mr Gayoom as they have widespread contacts among politicians and the media in the West as well as neighbouring Sri Lanka and India. The President had brought them into the government proclaiming that this was concrete evidence that he was preparing to move forward and hand over power to a younger generation.

Mr Saeed has promised to stand against Mr Gayoom for the presidency and the three former ministers have established contact with other parties, including the main opposition, the Maldivian Democratic Party, with the aim of presenting an united front.

The three ministers are currently in London meeting parliamentarians and members of the small Maldivian community. They are due to meet Foreign Office officials today.

The Maldives was hit by a bomb attack last September which injured 12 tourists, including a British couple. The blast is thought to have been the work of a growing Islamist movement but President Gayoom also blamed reformists and pro-democracy activists for creating "instability".

Mr Saeed said yesterday: "The fact is it is in the repressive nature of this government that they are trying to use the attack to blame the pro-democratic forces. I know for a fact that the government was warned about the dangers of rising Islamic fundamentalism and we put together an action plan to combat it. This was presented to the President seven months before the attack and they failed to act on it."

The former ministers claimed they had been subjected to intimidation and threats since they announced their resignation. Mr Saeed said: "Our offices were broken into and documents removed. Our houses have had paint thrown at them and we have received threats."

There are said to be widespread feelings in the Maldives that the " Islamist" attack was not as straightforward as the government had painted it. Critics claim that the security service may have had a part in organising the bombing.