Pirates hijack cargo vessel in Maldivian waters

A foreign cargo vessel has been hijacked by Somali pirates in Maldivian waters, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has confirmed.

The Bolivian-flagged vessel was hijacked about 190 nautical miles northwest of Hoarafushi island in Haa Alif Atoll, said MNDF Spokesperson Major Abdul Raheem.

The MNDF have dispatched defence vessels to the scene of the hijacking. The vessel was identified on Somalia Report as the Iranian-owned MV EGLANTINE, with 23 crew members on board. The vessel, which has previously been named the Bluebell and the Iran Gilan, is owned by Darya Hafiz Shipping.

“Since it is a hijacking it is possible that the pirates will be armed. I cannot give further details on the mission. There are factors to be considered before going to a direct confrontation or rescue,” said Major Raheem. Foreign authorities have been asked for assistance, he confirmed.

The attack occurred this morning and was reported to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) station on Villigili at 2:30pm.

Though acts of piracy have been reported near the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Monday’s attack is the first to happen in Maldivian waters.

The Maldives is situated at a strategic intersection of sea trade routes, and a significant amount of global maritime traffic passes through or near the country’s northern atolls.

The Maldives’ government first expressed concern over the growing piracy threat in 2010 after small vessels containing Somali nationals began washing up on local islands. The castaways were given medical treatment and incarcerated while the government negotiated their repatriation.

Last week, the 40 Somali castaways in custody of the Maldives’ authorities refused to return home despite arrangements that were made for their safe repatriation.

The government had identified and obtained passports for the detainees and arranged a charter flight for their return to Somalia said a senior government official who worked on the case, but was unable to deport them against their will.

Refugees cannot be repatriated without consent under international conventions to which the Maldives is signatory, leaving the Maldives no legal recourse but to sign international conventions on the rights of refugees and migrant workers and their families and accept the Somali nationals as refugees.

In a special report on piracy in December 2010, Minivan News cited a European piracy expert who noted that increased policing of waters at a high risk of piracy was forcing pirates deeper and deeper into the Indian Ocean.

“We believe that this trend is due to the fact that the pirates are following the vessels – as merchant ships increase their distance from Somalia in order to feel ‘safer’, the pirates follow them resulting in attacks much farther east than ever before,” she said.

Concerns about rising piracy have also been expressed by yachting interests in the Maldives.

An American luxury passenger line en route to the Seychelles in January was stranded in the Maldivian waters due to “piracy risk”, while the passengers departed to the Seychelles through airline flights.

Secretary General of Maldives Association of Yacht Agents (MAYA), Mohamed Ali, told Minivan News at the time that the passenger line had arrived on December 29 and was scheduled to leave the same day after a brief stop near Male’.

However, he said the cruise captain had decided not to leave with the passengers on board due to “security reasons”, as there have been several attacks by pirates near the Seychelles.


President refutes three day ultimatum for MDP to participate in National Unity Government

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik had reportedly given a three day ultimatum to the former ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to inform its decision on joining the cabinet as he pushed forward a plan to form a national unity government.

However during a press conference with foreign media at 4:30pm on Thursday afternoon, Dr Waheed adamantly denied giving such an ultimatum, instead saying he would always remain open to MDP’s involvement in his government. However the statement was still available on the President’s Office website as of midnight February 16.

“No we haven’t, I deny that. I am not aware of it. If somebody has, then somebody else is doing this,” he said.

According to the statement – released by the President’s Office on Thursday – Dr Waheed had forwarded a letter to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s President Dr Ibrahim Didi, requesting he inform the party’s decision on joining the national unity government before February 20.

“The President said that at a time when the country is deeply divided, the way forward in achieving national aspirations was through working together and by a fully inclusive government. He, therefore, urged MDP to join the national unity government that he was striving to form,” the statement read.

“The President also stressed the need to resolve the existing political rifts and to find a way forward. In this regard, he said, he hoped that his proposition would bring an end to the long standing divisions that had existed in the country.”

In the letter, President Waheed also stated that he believed that, despite the political differences, “the MDP President would also view the need to complete the reform process. He also stressed that the reform process would take time to complete.”

Therefore, he said, “he hoped that the MDP President would see that the time left till 2013 elections could be an opportunity for the country to address the political problems, identify issues and to work together to complete the reform process.”

Speaking to Minivan News Dr. Waheed’s spokesperson Masood Imad added that if the MDP did not respond to the letter in the given time, “there are ways to work around it” – although he did not specify those ways.

“By the end of the 20th if they dont give an answer they can do it on the 21st or may be later,” Imad observed. “We will not close our doors. As President Waheed had said before, we will welcome MDP with open arms always.”

Dr Waheed has put forward the ultimatum in the face of  pressure from his predecessor former President Mohamed Nasheed from MDP, who has denounced Dr Waheed’s government as illegitimate, claiming that he was forced to resign in a bloodless coup d’etat  on February 7 at the hands of rogue police and military officers.

Dr Waheed has earlier said that he wanted his cabinet – now compromising of mostly opposition members – to “represent all major political parties”, and said he hoped that MDP would be represented. Dr Waheed also said he would “keep posts vacant for them”. However the MDP has so far rejected any participation in Dr Waheed’s government and has called for early elections in the next two months.

India on Thursday evening amended its position on the Maldives and backed calls for early elections.


Waheed Deen nominated as Vice President

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik has nominated philanthropist and owner of Bandos Island Resort Mohamed Waheed Deen as his Vice President.

Parliament approval is required to make the appointment official.

“I have looked around and decided that Deen is the best choice who can work with me closely,” Dr Waheed said. “There may be better qualified people but I want to work with someone close to me and with whom I have full confidence in. I delighted that Mr Deen has agreed to work with me.”

Deen said he had been educated at the state’s expense and that this was an opportunity for him to repay the favor to the nation.

“In 1969, at the age of 16, I was sentenced to jail on charges of a coup. That day I decided to show that I am not a conspirator to a coup. And [decided] to serve the nation,” he said.

He said that he would work sincerely to fulfill the duties tasked to him by President Waheed, and  support his efforts to develop the nation.

“My reason for accepting is that as a person who has been working all these years in different government posts, as well as a businessmen and human rights council member, it is time to serve the nation,” he said.

“When the nation is going in this direction – violence and destruction, innocent people losing their jobs – including Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). I do not want to see that. I want to see everybody treated equally. That is why I accept the post – because I believe the President [Waheed] and I have similar ideas, and that it is possible for me to work with him. As the President reiterated, we would like MDP to join the cabinet. I think there are great leaders among them. I hope to serve the nation and not a party.”

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s party has challenged the legitimacy of the new government, following Nasheed’s resignation allegedly “under duress” on February 7.

Asked for his response to these allegations, Deen responded that it would be “very difficult to make decision [on the government’s legitimacy] 10 minutes after being nominated, as I am not yet the Vice President. I will be the Vice President when the Majlis (Parliament) accepts me, so that is a question I cannot answer.”

Dr Waheed said he would forward Deen’s name for a parliament vote tomorrow morning: “I hope parliament would approve him as the Vice President.”

The President said that he would work closely with the new VP, making a reference to Nasheed’s resignation  as a “bitter result” of not working like that.

Dr Waheed also said that he will support an independent investigation into the reasons surrounding the resignation of his predecessor, adding that he is awaiting legal advice on how to proceed from the newly-appointed Attorney General and opposition-linked lawyer Aishath Azima Shakoor.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Dr Waheed also announced that he was developing a “roadmap” that he would propose to all parties “towards reaching peaceful resolution of the issues we are facing today.”

Dr Waheed also reiterated his desire for the MDP to participate in the cabinet, stating that he was “willing to restructure the cabinet” to accommodate the MDP if required.

The MDP has so far refused to participate in a national unity government as proposed by Dr Waheed, challenging its legitimacy and observing that the majority of the new cabinet appointments are key supporters of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years. Only two of the new appointments (the tourism and and health portfolios) have previously undeclared political affiliations.

In today’s press conference Dr Waheed insisted that he had reserved the decision to nominate the Vice President himself, despite pressure from opposition parties.

Deen’s Background

Deen is well known for his philanthropic works and is praised as “the founding father of local government in the Maldives” for spearheading efforts to introduce local governance through elected councils, before resigning as Atolls Minister in August, 2008.

Following the council elections, Deen established The Institute of Local Governance and Development, a private initiative to support the decentralisation process and promote good governance by providing training programmes, consultation and information to councilors.

Deen continues to support various non government organisations.

Last year, Deen joined in line with several tourism magnates to endorse the Nasheed’s economic reform program criticised by the then-opposition.

The government’s economic reform programme was necessary because “we do not want to keep the gap between rich and poor in this country anymore,” Deen asserted.

“What is the main reason a country becomes impoverished?” he asked. “I believe that one of the main reasons is refusal to tell the people the truth by many successive governments, many kings, until we have come to this point.”

In the Maldives’ long history, Deen continued, the public were indoctrinated to not criticise the government and given to understand that “only a particular group, from a particular family, could rule.”

Deen speculated that “the biggest challenge” the government’s economic reform agenda would face will be “changing people’s mentality.”

“This is the biggest problem facing our country today: [one side says] ‘everything is going right’ [while the other says] ‘nothing is going right,’” he explained. “So we have to educate our people, especially the councils.”

Deen also cautioned against unprincipled opposition to the government: “We could stay angry, hateful and disapproving and say ‘go on, run the government’ but sadly – remember this well – any harm this government suffers, the people will suffer many times over.”

Meanwhile, leader of Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) Dr Hassan Saeed has been appointed as the Special Advisor to the President , a post he held during Nasheed’s administration before resigning on the 100th day.

Saeed was the former Attorney General during Gayoom’s administration, and was the first person to file complaints against Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed in 2005, the detention of whom led to protests and ultimately the dramatic events of last week.


TMA cabin crewman dead after colliding with seaplane propeller

A 20 year-old cabin crew member with TransMaldivian Airways (TMA) has died after colliding with the propeller of a seaplane at Conrad Rangali Island resort.

The police identified the victim as Ismail Hamdoon Mahmood of Fehifarudhaage, Maduvaree in Neemu Atoll.

Police confirmed that a team had been dispatched to the resort to investigate the incident.

Conrad Maldives issued a statement confirming that the incident occurred early Tuesday evening in the resort’s lagoon.

“It is with deep regret that we confirm the death of that crew member.  No one else was injured in this incident.  This has been a tremendous shock, and Conrad Maldives Rangali Resort extends its deepest condolences to the family. This matter is now being handled by the appropriate authorities,” the statement read.

In a statement, TMA’s Managing Director Edward Alsford said that Hamdhoon had “accidentally walked into the line the moving propeller and was subsequently struck and died.”

“TMA have infomed the family and is liaising with the relevant authorities. At the time of the incident the aircraft had no passengers aboard as the crew had moored the aircraft for overnight parking.”

Local media Sun Online reported a source from resort as saying that it was raining at the time and Mahmood had slipped and collided with the propeller while walking on the platform, and fell into the lagoon. His body was retrieved from the water by resort staff and is currently being kept at the resort clinic, Sun reported.


Tourism arrivals would drop “10-36 percent” if government provokes terrorist attack, warns Adhaalath

The religious Adhaalath Party has sent a letter to parliament warning that a terrorist attack in the Maldives would reduce tourist arrivals “by 10-36 percent for the next 12 months.”

The letter was sent to parliament’s national security committee which has begun debating whether to permit Israeli flights to land in the Maldives.

“If there is a terrorist attack in the Maldives due to the commencement of Zionist Israel’s flight operations to Maldives, the tourist arrival rates for the next 12 months will decline by 10-36 percent,” Adhaalath predicted in the letter, adding that the tourism industry would face a loss of US$200 million to US$1 billion. The party did not elaborate on how it reached the figures.

Adhaalath severed its coalition agreement with the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in September, soon after the Transport Ministry granted a licence to Israeli flag carrier El Al to begin operations to Maldives.

Since then, Adhaalath has been campaigning against the licence, stirring strong anti-Israeli sentiment.

In the letter forwarded to the national security committee, which has an MDP majority, Adhaalath alleged that the Israeli flights are “targeted by the terrorists” and said that terrorist “eyes” would turn on Maldives if the operations commence, posing “serious threats to the national security”.

MPs debated Adhaalath’s letter during Wednesday’s committee meeting and decided to summon the head of the Maldives security forces to examine the claims.

“We will discuss the concerns raised by the Adhaalath Party and consult security forces to determine whether action should be taken,” said committee head, MDP MP Ali Waheed.

MDP MP Mohamed Thoriq was meanwhile quoted in local media as calling for an investigation into all the allegations Adhaalath has made regarding the Maldives’ ties with Israel, claiming that as a 100 percent muslin country, the Maldives must “be prepared for any threats from Israel”.

Sun Online reported MDP MP Mohamed Nazim meanwhile suggested conducting research into whether Jewish arrivals to the Maldives in the past had caused any negative effect on the Islamic faith, while Independent MP Mohamed Zubair was quoted as claiming that Israeli flight operations would “bring no benefit to the Maldivian economy”.

Transport Minister Adhil Saleem observed that opponents of allowing Israel to fly to the Maldives “don’t seem to have an issue with Israeli tourists coming to the Maldives and spending their money.”

His mandate as Transport Minister was to increase air, sea and cargo transport to and from all countries, Saleem said, “and if there is no specific legal exemption for Israel, I cannot treat it any differently as that would mean I was corrupt.”

He would not comment on whether allowing El Al to fly to the Maldives posed a security risk, deferring to the defence forces. There were, he said, many Muslim Israelis and a number of Islamic holy sites in Israel, such as the Masjid-Al-Aqsa, and 500-800 Maldivians flew there each year.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Arab population of Israel in 2010 was estimated at 1,573,000, 20 percent of the country’s total population and almost five times that of the Maldives.

El Al is notably the only commercial airline equipped with infrared counter-measures for defence against anti-aircraft missiles, according to the its Wikipedia entry. All flights are manned by armed sky marshals, the cockpit is protected by a two door ‘mantrap’, and the baggage hold is armoured to protect the passenger cabin from explosive devices.

The airline’s last reported security incident occurred in 2002 when a 23 year-old Israeli Arab was apprehended after attempting to break into the cockpit with a pocket knife. Earlier that same year a gunman killed two people and was shot dead at an El Al check in counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

The first El Al flight was due to arrive in the Maldives on December 13, however Saleem said the airline has so far yet to forward the scheduling to the Ministry.