Maldives opposition protest ends peacefully
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Maldives opposition protest ends peacefully

Maldivian Democratic Party said it had closed its protest early as President Gayoom's Govt had sent in paid thugs to disrupt the event.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 18:58 IST

The main Maldivian opposition party said it had ended its demonstration early in the capital Male on Tuesday to prevent trouble, but authorities said very few people had turned up for the protest.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said it had closed its protest at night fall because President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's government had sent in paid thugs to disrupt the seafront event and blame the opposition.

"We had a very strong threat of violence," MDP Secretary General Hamid Abdul Ghafoor told the agency by telephone from the island chain west of Sri Lanka and India.

"We knew there were groups of thugs in the crowd. We are aware there were plans for arson in Male. We didn't want to play into their hands."

The government had said the demonstration -- which called for the release of the MDP's imprisoned chairman and the sacking of the police chief -- was illegal. Both sides said police had stayed back until after the crowd dispersed.

But their accounts of the crowd were widely different. Officials said 500-600 people had joined the demonstration, but the MDP said there were more than 8,000.

Last year Gayoom, in power since 1978, vowed to introduce political reforms on the Indian Ocean archipelago in the face of international criticism for a heavy crackdown on thousands of protesters demanding constitutional change and his resignation.

The MDP said that while it had hoped its protest would go on longer, the fact the police stayed back was a step forward from last year when party chairman Mohamed Nasheed was arrested on treason charges shortly after Gayoom removed a ban on political parties.

With its string of luxury resorts spread across hundreds of Indian Ocean islands, the Maldives attracts some of the world's highest spending tourists. The opposition says it is considering asking them to stay away in order to pressure the government.

The MDP says Gayoom is delaying reform, fearing a free vote because of the opposition's strength. The government says the opposition is itself slowing the process because it knows it has little support amongst the Maldives 300,000-strong mostly Sunni Muslim population -- as shown by the protest turnout.

"This is a great disaster for them," Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed said of the opposition protest. "We've got a good economy, we've just recovered from the tsunami, hotels are full -- no-one wants to disturb it."

First Published: Jan 25, 2006 12:17 IST