Maldives new president makes an official request to India to withdraw military personnel

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu officially requested India to withdraw its military personnel from the archipelago on Saturday, a day after being sworn in.

The president's office said in a statement that Muizzu made the request when he met Kiren Rijiju, India's minister for earth sciences. He was in the Maldives for the presidential inauguration.

“The president noted that at the presidential election held in September, the Maldivian people had given him a strong mandate to make the request to India and expressed hope that India will honour the democratic will of the people of the Maldives,” the statement said.

Muizzu, who is seen as pro-China, campaigned on a promise to evict Indian military personnel and balance trade, which he said was heavily in favor of India under his predecessor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

The election was seen a virtual referendum on which regional power — China or India — should have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago. Both India, the closest neighbor of the Maldives, and China have been vying for influence in the islands located strategically on the shipping route connecting east and west.

The number of Indian troops in the Maldives is not publicly known. Critics say secrecy in the agreement between India and Solih’s government regarding the role and number of Indian military personnel has led to suspicion and rumors. The Indian military is known to operate two Indian-donated helicopters and assisting in search and rescue operations for people stranded or facing calamities at sea.

The Maldives' minister for strategic communications, Ibrahim Khaleel, told The Associated Press that the president himself will have to find out the number of Indian troops from officials after the weekend.

He said the discussions took place in a cordial manner and the Maldives was hopeful that the withdrawal will take place soon.

Muizz's ally, former President Abdulla Yameen, made the Maldives part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative during his presidency from 2013 to 2018. The development initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.