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Foreign Mercenaries Fail in Coup Effort in Maldives, Flee as Indian Troops Arrive

November 04, 1988|United Press International

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Several hundred foreign mercenaries failed in an attempt to overthrow the government of the Maldives on Thursday, fleeing the island nation in the Indian Ocean with a Cabinet member as a hostage after Indian troops arrived to put down the coup, authorities said late Thursday.

Sri Lankan and Indian military aircraft searched the seas south of the Maldives for three ships carrying the mercenaries, who killed at least 12 people and wounded more than 100 others in the coup attempt, Sri Lankan Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali said.

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent 1,600 paratroopers and three naval ships to the area after the coup attempt began early Thursday. The Maldives are about 400 miles southwest of India.

"When the mercenaries heard the ships and planes coming, they ran to their . . . boats and disappeared," said Sharad Sapra, a representative of the U.N. Children's Fund, in a telephone interview from Male, capital of the Maldives.

"President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his Cabinet are now in full control of Maldives and normalcy has returned," Ahmed Abdullah, the Maldives high commissioner in Sri Lanka, said in an interview in Colombo.

A Maldivian official who asked not to be identified said the mercenaries had abducted Transport Minister Ahmed Mujuthaba.

The official said the Maldivian government will ask Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene to investigate the activities of Maldivian nationals and their Sri Lankan allies, who apparently plotted the coup in Colombo. "We have conclusive evidence that the mercenaries hired were Tamil guerrillas," he said.

Sri Lankan intelligence sources said they thought the attackers were members of the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan rebel group, who were hired by Abdullah Latufi, a Maldives-born businessman who lives in Colombo and is close to former President Ibrahim Nasir.

Nasir had groomed President Gayoom for the office and moved to Singapore when Gayoom was elected in 1978.

Relations between Nasir and Gayoom deteriorated when Gayoom appointed a committee to investigate allegations that Nasir had embezzled state funds. Gayoom ordered some of Nasir's property seized and his brothers tried for corruption.

In 1980, Nasir allegedly hired nine former members of Britain's elite Special Air Service commando group and sent them to assassinate Gayoom. But the plan collapsed when it was leaked to the news media in Sri Lanka.

Advance units of two crack Indian paratrooper battalions began landing aboard Soviet-built military transport planes at the Maldives' international airport on Hulule island late Thursday, security sources in Colombo said. The airport reportedly was under attack earlier by the invaders, but remained under the control of security forces.

Mohamed Zahir, a Sri Lankan working for a German tourist organization, said in a telephone interview from Male that "life is normal now. The radio station is working. Television is coming on the air this evening. Indian troops are moving around the island."

The coup attempt began about 4:30 a.m. when an unknown number of raiders disembarked from at least one ship into speedboats that whisked them into Male, residents reached by telephone said.

The raiders linked up with about 300 other men who were recruited in Sri Lanka for jobs in the Maldives as manual laborers and hotel employes and had entered the country during the past month, Sri Lankan intelligence sources said.

The attackers swept across Male, commandeering government buildings, including the state-run radio studio, and firing at members of the tiny security force, residents said.

"We heard gunfire all around," said one resident. "We were too frightened to leave our house."

An Asian diplomatic source in Colombo said at least 12 people were killed and 100 wounded in the assault.

In Washington, the State Department said Maldives government representatives requested U.S. help "in putting down the coup attempt," and a working group was formed to monitor events.

The United States and India want to protect the interests of the Maldives government "because this is an elected government subject to attack and it has requested assistance," State Department spokesman Charles Redman said.

However, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said no U.S. intervention was planned.

About seven Americans were on the island of Male and 34 Americans were on the other islands, he said.

The population of the Maldives, one of the world's poorest countries, is 181,000 and is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Male is its only town. The island chain was under British protection from 1887 until it received independence on July 26, 1965. It became a republic on Nov. 11, 1968.

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