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Maldives' new president agrees to early elections

world Updated: Feb 17, 2012 00:03 IST

Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed on Thursday agreed to demands for early elections, after taking power last week in what his ousted predecessor described as a coup d'etat.

The island nation, set in the Indian Ocean, has endured a political stand-off since February 7 when protesters backed by police toppled Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives' first democratically elected leader.

"The government will hold discussions with political parties to hold elections at an early date," Waheed's spokesman Imad Masoud told AFP in the capital Male.

"The government will work towards creating conditions that will permit such early elections to take place... if necessary the government will consider any constitutional amends that need to be made."

Waheed previously planned to form a national unity government and hold scheduled elections by late 2013 -- a proposal that had received the strong backing of the United States.

The change of policy was likely to be seen as a victory for Nasheed, who has refused to accept the new administration and repeatedly called for elections to be held as soon as possible.

India's Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, who is visiting Male amid the political impasse, said in a statement that "our understanding is that elections would be held as early as considered feasible by all concerned."

Mathai also said that, following talks on Thursday, Nasheed may call off a mass party rally on Friday evening in the capital to avoid a repeat of recent violence.

"The Maldivian Democratic Party... committed itself to encouraging an atmosphere appropriate to the holding of elections," Mathai said.

"In this context, we understand that their decision to hold a rally tomorrow is being reconsidered."

The United States and Britain have issued travel advisories urging citizens against "all but essential" travel to Male, though the outlying islands that host luxury beach resorts were unaffected by the warning.

The Maldives relies heavily on tourism for income, with the industry estimating it could lose over $100 million in revenue due to the cancellation of visitor bookings after the political unrest.

The nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands has established up-market resorts in 100 islets catering to well-heeled holiday makers and honeymooners who pay up to $12,500 a night.

Owners have reported hundreds of cancelled bookings, the tourism association said.

Nasheed's exit from office followed months of protests over high prices and calls for more religiously conservative policies in the Islamic state of 330,000 Sunni Muslims.

A nine-member Commonwealth ministerial mission is also due in the Maldives on Friday on a fact-finding mission to study the events surrounding Nasheed's resignation and the transfer of power.