New Delhi, Feb 7 (IANS) Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed quit under pressure Tuesday after weeks of protests triggered by a judge's arrest saw mutinous police personnel backing opposition activists and rocking the archipelago known for its deep blue seas, turquoise reefs and white sandy beaches.
A former rights campaigner who had increasingly come under attack for arbitrary rule, Nasheed, 44, announced that he was resigning after a little over three years in power as he did not want to use force to curb escalating street protests.
After the departure of the first democratically elected president in the history of the Maldives, Vice President Mohammad Waheed Hassan, a former top UNICEF official, took oath as the president.
A tourist haven, the Maldives is made up of several atolls and lies southwest of Sri Lanka. It has a population of over 350,000, most of them Sunni Muslims. The main language is Dhivehi, a Sinhalese dialect.
Hussain Shareef, chief spokesperson and member of the interim council of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), said Nasheed is in the custody of the army and will be granted constitutional rights.
Nasheed was elected president Oct 28, 2008, when he defeated president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had ruled the Maldives for three decades.
Nasheed's resignation happened only after the army applied pressure on the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader, leading him in the morning to the television office to make his dramatic announcement, media reports said.
"I resign because I am not a person who wishes to rule with the use of power. I believe that if the government were to remain in power, it would require the use of force which would harm many citizens," he said in a statement broadcast on state-run television seized by rogue policemen.
"I resign because I believe that if the government continues to stay in power, it is very likely that we may face foreign influences," he said. "I have made this decision."
Nasheed had hit the global headlines three years ago when he held a cabinet meeting under water to highlight global warming and the threat to his atoll nation.
As fast paced events unfolded at Male, Maldivian authorities went out of their way to deny intense speculation that a coup had taken place. The Maldivian and foreign media reported jubilation on the streets of capital Male as opposition activists celebrated.
Nasheed had run into widespread anger after a senior judge, Abdulla Mohamed, was arrested by the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) over a fortnight ago on corruption charges.
The judge was reportedly confined to one of the lesser inhabited islands. The Maldives is made up of about 1,200 mostly small islands, with only 200 inhabited.
Supporters of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom control parliament and have organised protests against the judge's internment.
Tension and sporadic violence had been escalating, with the ruling MDP alleging attacks on its supporters and offices by opposition activists not happy with long-time ruler Gayoom's departure.
Since Tuesday morning, there was intense speculation that Nasheed had been taken into custody. Shops and businesses in Male quickly shut down.
In the meantime, officers of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), the number ranging from 60 to 600, joined the demonstrations.
Events galloped rapidly thereafter. Opposition protesters and rogue policemen then seized the Maldives National Broadcasting Corp (MNBC) and quickly renamed it Television Maldives (TVM), reports said.
That led a government official to say a coup attempt was underway, causing concern in many capitals, including New Delhi.
The presidency denied Nasheed had resigned, until the president actually stepped down.
The opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) told Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader that most police and army personnel were backing Nasheed's removal.
DQP spokesperson Mohamad Malech Jamal said there were now celebrations in Male and the airport and the state broadcaster were under the control of the police and army.
"About 800 police officers gathered at the Republic Square. Several of them called for the president's resignation," Jamal was quoted as saying.
The Maldivian government appealed for calm.
"The government of Maldives together with all state institutions will work to ensure peace and stability in Male," a statement said.
"Government calls to people to remain calm and support to stabilize the situation," it added.