SL offers to help Maldives as casualties rise

The Island, Colombo
September 24, 2003

by Amal Jayasinghe

Sept. 23 (AFP) — Sri Lanka has offered to help the Maldives restore law and order after the Indian Ocean atoll nation suffered unprecedented civil unrest sparked by a prison riot that killed three inmates, officials said Tuesday.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is visiting New York, spoke by telephone Sunday with Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom and offered "any assistance", including help to restore security, official sources in the Maldives said.

Unprecedented mob violence gripped the Maldivian capital of Male on Saturday following the deaths of two convicts at a nearby prison. A third man wounded in the prison died at a hospital in Colombo Monday.

Sri Lanka’s Interior Minister John Amaratunga said there had been no formal request for help, but he was ready to extend assistance in keeping with good neighbourly relations.

"If there is a request, we will have to consider it very seriously," Amaratunga told AFP. "Certainly being a neighbour, our duty is to give them whatever assistance they request."

Officials in the Maldives said the number of wounded from Friday’s riot at Maafushi prison, located on a tiny coral island some 45 minutes by speed boat from Male, had risen to 18 and some of them had been flown to Sri Lanka for treatment.

The mob violence that followed the prison deaths, as residents accused police of complicity, has never been seen before in the Maldives, a major tourist destination.

Mobs attacked police and torched the high court, the elections office and several police vehicles.

Gayyoom Monday appointed his minister of construction and public works, Umar Zahir to take charge of the prison and sacked five members of his National Security Service (NSS) who were at the jail, placing them under arrest.

The cause of the prison unrest is to be investigated by a commission appointed by the president.

He also pledged to prosecute those behind the rampage in Male, a 1.6-kilometre-long (one mile) low-lying coral island protected by a wall of concrete tetra pods.

Gayyoom’s spokesman Husain Amir said the situation in Male was back to normal Tuesday.

"The situation is normal, everything is back to normal," Amir said when contacted by telephone.

Residents said the police had since Monday begun rounding up those suspected of involvement in the violence.

Maldivian authorities have stressed the unrest was unrelated to the re-election bid of Gayyoom, who is set to win a sixth five-year term in November in the archipelago of 1,192 coral islands with a population of 250,000 Sunni Muslims.

The mobs attacked a day after elections commissioner announced that Gayyoom would run against four other candidates. Gayyoom is considered almost certain to win.

Sri Lanka assembled a team of elite police commandos to help put down a November 1988 coup attempt in the Maldives led by a disgruntled businessman, but before they could be sent, the attacking force of Tamil mercenaries withdrew.

The Maldives is a one-hour flight southwest of Sri Lanka.

There is already co-operation between the police departments of the two countries with Sri Lanka providing assistance to the island in a crackdown against the smuggling of narcotics.

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