The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has told local media that unauthorised aircraft spotted in Maldivian airspace belong to the United States Air Force.
CAA Director Abdulla Rasheed told local paper Haveeru the aircraft had originated from Foalhavahi – also known as the Chagos Islands – home to a US military base.
“No one can enter the area, without our knowing. If anyone were to enter, they would have to gain our permission first,” Rasheed told Haveeru.
The paper reported last week that the unidentified craft had been spotted over Huvadhoo Atoll – over 500 miles north of the base – on two consecutive days. Witnesses reported the aircraft circling the area at low altitude.
It was also revealed last week that the aircraft had dropped two buoys which were subsequently confiscated by the Maldives National Defence Force.
While the Maldives 1996 Maritime Zones Act stipulates that unauthorised foreign military aircraft cannot use Maldivian airspace, the US has previously disputed the legality of this restriction.
The Chagos Islands – a British Indian Ocean Territory – have been home to a US military base in the Diego Garcia atoll since the early 1970s, and are largely uninhabited since the indigenous islanders’ forced migration to Mauritius and the Seychelles.
The US had argued in 2001 that the Convention on the Law of the Sea – ratified by the Maldives in 2001 – grants all aircraft free access to archipelagic sea lanes.
An unclassified US State Department telegram sent to the US embassy in Colombo in 2001 noted that the Maldives’ restrictions on innocent passage “could set an adverse precedent regarding the development of international practice generally”.
Despite this objection, the department has noted that the Maldives offered the free use of its airspace to US aircraft during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, as well as granting similar access during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
A leaked Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) revealed last year that preliminary discussions regarding a potential US base in the Maldives had taken place.
After President Abdulla Yameen was reported in January to have opted against the SOFA agreement for fear of upsetting regional partners, pentagon officials responded by saying that a permanent base had never been considered.
The US did, however, donate the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System – or PISCES – border control system to the Maldives in 2013.
The system, criticised by previous providers of Maldivian border control software as nothing more than a “terrorist tracking system”, came into use 12 months ago and was said to have been used to identify alleged hacker Roman Seleznyov before his controversial detention in June.