The police are investigating an apparent arson attack on a car used by a team of American scientists conducting research in Addu.
South police division Commander, Superintendent Yoonus Sobah told Minivan News that police were alerted to the incident around 12:51am on Sunday. The fire was put out when the police team reached the scene.
Sobah said it is too soon to say whether the fire was a deliberate attack or a random incident.
“We are continuing the investigation. So far we have not found any evidence to prove the fire was set deliberately,” Sobah said.
The car was rented by the American research team involved in the Dynamics of the Madden-Julian Oscillation (DYNAMO) project based on Gan in Addu atoll.
According to DYNAMO project Research Assistant Justin Stachnik, one of 13 American researchers currently in Addu, the car was parked outside the house they are currently residing in Hithadhoo.
He said the details of the incident remains “unclear”, and it was the neighbours who spotted the fire and put it out.
“What I believe happened was that someone put a half litre of petrol between the tire and the outer gate wall, ignited it and ran away. The tire burned and popped, there’s some damage to the metal and the bumper, as well as the electrical system–some of the wires have been fried,” Stachnik said. “But overall, the damage is fairly minimal.”
From looking at the char and soot marks in the car, outer wall and the leaves in an overhanging tree, Stachnik estimates the flame was between three and three-and-a-half metres high.
Although “there is no doubt” that the act was intentional, Stachnik does not believe it was “directed specifically at him by an organised group.”
Stachnik said neighbors have told him that nothing like this has happened before.
According to a senior official at Addu City Council, the office has received reports that the research team is seldom disturbed by some locals who “dislike” foreigners or non Muslims.
The official attributed the fire incident to the recent increase in religious tensions and the December 23 protest, which he claimed has exacerbated religious intolerance in Addu.
“We have received information that some parents with extreme views are telling their children the American scientists are Kafir [non muslims] and they must not speak to them. It is possible the fire was set by the children as a prank,” he said.
However, Stachnik who arrived in the Maldives nine days ago to track tropical rainfall during the final intensive leg of Project DYNAMO said that aside from the car incident, the team has been warmly welcomed to the area.
“People are smiling and saying hello as I go by on my bike, sometimes stopping to offer help if I need anything. The grocer had us over for dinner the other night and some people have been making plans for picnic boat rides to other islands.” He said he hasn’t heard of any discrimination against foreigners.
Project DYNAMO is a component of the first in-depth study of equatorial tropical storms between the Maldives and Papua New Guinea, designed by the US Energy Department’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) climate research facility.
It is scheduled to finish in April.
Meanwhile opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has condemned the attack on the car.
Spokesperson for PPM and MP Ahmed Mahloof alleged that the government is behind the fire incident claiming it is part of a “government conspiracy to provoke conflict between the opposition and foreigners”.
“Foreigners have been coming to this country for a long time and they have always been living in harmony with the local community. However, the attack is suspicious because it happened not long after the December 23 protest. The government is trying to defame the opposition and religious groups by conspiring against us,” Mahloof accused.