New Maldives govt reverses decision to send back India choppers

A day after new Maldives president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was sworn in, the country's new defence minister has said that Male would not be returning back the two helicopters gifted to the archipelago by the Indian government.

Maldives under former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom had returned one of the choppers in May and had asked India to remove the second by the end of June.

However, after extensive discussions between both sides, the then Maldives government had extended the deadline to remove the helicopters till December.

Speaking to WION, the newly appointed defence minister Mariya Ahmed Didi said, "It’s not in our culture to ask neighbours to take back what they give."

There had been reports that Male has been concerned by the presence of Indian navy staff who are stationed in the Maldives for the maintenance of the choppers.

India had reportedly stationed six pilots and over a dozen ground personnel to operate the choppers and also help the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).

There had been further controversy when the visas given to the pilots operating the helicopter expired at the end of May. Despite requests, the visas were reportedly not renewed immediately, causing some concern for the personnel.

"The helicopters can be put to good use for medical evacuations and for search and rescue," Mariya told WION, in her first interview to an Indian organisation after taking charge as the first female Defence Minister of the island nation.

Immediately after taking the oath of office on Saturday, president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had signaled a change in the archipelago's foreign policy.

"We will endeavour to fortify the existing ties the Maldives has had with India and other regional countries. The Maldives will hereupon bolster its shared role to retain enduring peace and harmony of the Indian Ocean," Solih said.

Solih also said the foreign policy of the Maldives will be fundamentally hinged on advancing policies that have a stake in the progress and welfare of our home.

"My government's foreign policy will be formulated on the basis of human rights, democracy and climate diplomacy," he added.

He said Maldives was open and willing to establish diplomatic relations, and strengthen existing ties with all countries that wish to form mutually beneficial development partnerships.

According to the first hundred days pledges of the new government, Solih led by his newly appointed foreign minister - seasoned diplomat and lawmaker Abdulla Shahid would apply to rejoin the Commonwealth within seven days from Saturday.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the more than 300 foreign dignitaries at the ceremony in Male.

The visit is Modi's first to the Maldives after years of tense relations between the two countries because of Solih's predecessor's embrace of China during his tenure.

Beijing reportedly loaned more than USD1.5bn to fund a massive infrastructure boom under the former president.

Modi's presence signals the end of years of frosty relations because of Yameen's embrace of China, a relationship that had deepened India's anxieties about being encircled by countries leaning towards Beijing.

Maldives was the only South Asian neighbour that Modi has not visited since taking office in 2014.

He dropped the Maldives from a 2015 tour of Indian Ocean countries because of the political situation there with massive anti-government protests and heightened tension that led to the arrest and prosecution of former president Mohamed Nasheed.