India begins replacing military personnel with civilians in response to Maldives' demand

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NEW DELHI (AP) — India on Thursday said it has begun replacing dozens of its military personnel in Maldives with civilian technical staff who will operate three aircraft given by India to provide humanitarian services.

The first batch of technicians to operate a helicopter has reached Maldives, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said.

The decision comes after new Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu demanded that the Indian military personnel be withdrawn by March 15.

At least 75 Indian military personnel are believed to be in Maldives. Their known activities include transporting patients from remote islands and rescuing people at sea. India earlier gave Maldives a Dornier airplane and two helicopters.

Tensions between India and Maldives have grown since pro-China Muizzu came to power last year.

The Maldives Foreign Ministry said last month that officials from the two countries had agreed that India would complete the withdrawal of its troops by May 10.

After taking office, Muizzu visited China ahead of India and said Maldives’ small size is not a license for anyone to bully it. His comments were an apparent response to calls on social media in India for tourists to boycott Maldives after three Maldives deputy ministers made derogatory posts about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The dispute began in January when Modi posted pictures on X, formerly known as Twitter, of himself strolling on the beach and snorkeling in Lakshadweep, an Indian archipelago that his government believes has untapped tourism potential.

Some in Maldives saw it as an attempt to lure tourists away from its sandy white beaches and luxury island resorts.

Muizzu suspended the deputy ministers, saying their comments did not reflect government policy. However, Muizzu announced plans after returning from China to end Maldives’ dependence on India and find alternate places for Maldivians to obtain education and health services and import food and medicine.