India completes Maldives troop withdrawal

Published On: May 11, 2024 07:32 AM NPT By: AFP/RSS

MALÉ, Maldives, May 11: India pulled out its last remaining soldiers stationed in the Maldives on Friday, meeting a deadline for their withdrawal that had strained ties between the two neighbors.

Pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu won office last year while campaigning on a promise to downgrade ties with India, and has since reoriented the strategically placed archipelago nation towards Beijing.

After coming to power, he demanded the withdrawal of Indian soldiers who had been stationed in the upscale beach holiday destination to assist with maritime patrols.

The third and final batch of 27 Indian troops left the archipelago on Friday, the official said, declining to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Another 51 soldiers had left the atoll nation by Tuesday, according to Indian and Maldivian officials.

The foreign ministry official added that there was no public ceremony held to mark the end of the Indian military deployment.

The Indian troops were operating three reconnaissance aircraft that New Delhi had gifted the Maldives to patrol its vast maritime boundary.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Randhir Jaiswal said on Thursday that the departing soldiers had been replaced by civilian "technical personnel".

- 'Enduring friendship' -

The dispute over the garrison, and the Maldives' overtures to Beijing, have been viewed with consternation in New Delhi.

But both South Asian nations struck a conciliatory note in a meeting between their foreign ministers in the Indian capital a day before the withdrawal deadline.

Maldivian envoy Moosa Zameer said his trip to Delhi marked a "new initiative of collaboration, symbolizing enduring friendship and shared goals".

His Indian counterpart S Jaishankar said both countries had a common interest in reaching "an understanding on how best we take our relationship forward."

The Maldives is a small nation of 1,192 tiny coral islets scattered 800 kilometers (500 miles) across the equator, but it strategically straddles key east-west international shipping routes.

India is suspicious of China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in the Maldives as well as in neighboring Sri Lanka.

Muizzu's government has entered several agreements with Beijing to boost bilateral relations and economic ties, sidelining India, which considers the tiny nation to be within its sphere of influence.

The Maldives signed a military assistance pact with China in March as the Indian garrison began leaving.

Its defense ministry said the deal was to foster "stronger bilateral ties" and that China would train its staff under the pact.

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