Maldives will return Indian military as soon as possible, says incoming president

FILE PHOTO: Maldives hold second round of a presidential election in Male

By Uditha Jayasinghe

COLOMBO (Reuters) -Maldives will work to return Indian military personnel from its shores "as soon as possible," President-elect Mohamed Muizzu told Reuters on Sunday, insisting it was the top foreign policy priority for the tiny Indian Ocean island chain.

Muizzu won Maldives' presidential election last month, beating incumbent President Ibrahim Solih in a second-round runoff.

Solih had followed an "India first" policy but Muizzu in his election campaign promised to remove a small Indian military presence of some 75 personnel in Maldives.

"I will be holding frank and detailed diplomatic consultations with India to work out details of sending back military personnel from the Maldives as soon as possible," Muizzu, who will take office on Nov. 17, told Reuters in an online interview from Male.

"The focus is not on the actual number of military personnel here, it is on not having any at all in the Maldives. We will discuss with the Indian government and find out a way forward for this."

Home to about 521,000 people, Maldives is famous for its sun-kissed atolls and luxury tourist resorts.

Rival Asian giants India and China have both invested millions of dollars in infrastructure in the islands as they seek to build influence.

The coalition backing Muizzu is known to be close to China but Muizzu told Reuters he was not pro-China or anti any country.

India has longstanding cultural, financial and security ties with Maldives, and has denied it aims to establish a military presence in the islands.

Muizzu said he will seek details of an agreement signed with India to build a naval harbour for Maldivian forces, to clear up any concerns over Maldivian independence and sovereignty.

"Of course we need development of the naval base and other military training grounds in the country with assistance from different countries but it doesn’t mean there should be a setup in which foreign military presence is required for its operations," Muizzu told Reuters.

He said he would make it a priority to ensure that his country's relations with India thrive.

"So I’m sure our friends in the Indian leadership will agree that we have a shared interest in creating a reservoir of respect which will be beneficial not just for the Maldives and India, but also for the stability and security of the Indian Ocean region as well."

Muizzu also plans to improve ties with China, which has in recent years invested in infrastructure projects as it builds closer ties and pursues its Belt and Road vision of transport and energy networks.

Maldives will engage with India and China, as well as other countries, on growth opportunities including investment in special economic zones Muizzu expects to establish to spur growth and double tourism numbers during his five-year term.

"I’m not pro-China or any country. The Maldives is and will not be anti or pro any country. My government will always be for Maldives. The Maldives will benefit immensely from having strong and vibrant relationships with the advanced economies as well as with emerging economic powers," he said.

(Reporting by Uditha JayasingheEditing by Swati Bhat and Susan Fenton)