Mass protests against soaring prices continued in neighbouring Maldives on Friday even as a visiting minister dismissed continuing demonstrations as politically motivated and a fight for succession within the principal opposition party.
Reports from capital Male said police broke-up protesters from gathering at the central Republican Square after hundreds had begun to assemble, shouting slogans against Mohamed Nasheed's government for failing to control prices. The protesters have vowed to gather later in the day.
The protests are being led by the principal opposition, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP). The party's leader, former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, ruled Maldives for more than 30 years before being defeated in October, 2008 in the first multi-party election.
This was the sixth consecutive day of protests in the densely populated Male, a small city of two-and-half square kilometres with 1.4 lakh residents and more than 20000 floating population.
The government has claimed that only 16 persons have been arrested; Reuters reported that more than 300 have actually been picked up.
For a fledgling democracy less than three years old, this could yet be President Nasheed's hardest test yet.
In Colombo, the visiting foreign minister of Maldives, Ahmed Naseem, said the government would protect the citizens' democratic right to peaceful assembly. "But (he) drew a clear distinction between the peaceful and responsible exercise of that right and the political-motivated violence, rioting and destruction of property currently being witnessed in Male."
Naseem said: "The police and military have taken appropriate action to prevent any damage to public property, any damage to people and try and keep discipline and order.”
The DRP has accused Nasheed's government of using excessive force against the demonstrators and of increasingly becoming autocratic.
Naseem dismissed that allegation too. "It is remarkable that the former President and his supporters… people who over the course of thirty years in government banned any form of public protest and routinely violated all basic human rights and freedoms are today using the right to freedom of assembly as a cover to pursue a violent political agenda," he said.