The Maldives will formalise its counter-terrorism agreements with India after renewed fears that Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is trying to establish a base in remote parts of the Maldives.
The LeT was implicated in the terror attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 in which gunmen entered the city by sea and killed at least 173 people and wounded 308. It is considered a terrorist organisation by India, the United States, the UK and Russia.
Covering the story today, Indian newspaper The Economic Times noted that Sultan Park bomber Moosa Inas was linked to the LeT and had travelled to Kerala before the bombings, a popular recruiting ground for the group.
Indian news portal Rediff.com today quoted Indian intelligence bureau sources as saying that the LeT “has nearly 1,000 operatives active in the Maldives”, and that there was no way the group’s operations “can be curbed unless there is very good intelligence sharing with the Maldives.”
The intelligence sources claimed that in the last three months “there has been an increase in LeT activites in the Maldives, and several persons from [the LeT’s] Kerala group have slipped into the country and are busy setting up operations there.”
India could ill-afford a slip in its Maldives policy, given the “extreme aggression” of the LeT group, the sources told Rediff.
The notion of a thousand LeT operatives active in the Maldives “may be an exaggeration”, said the Maldivian president’s press secretary Mohamed Zuhair, “but there may be some truth in it.”
Minister for Home Affairs Mohamed Shihab is currently in India meeting his counterpart P Chidambaram to draw up a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two countries that will be signed in April.
First Secretary at the Indian High Commission to the Maldives, Naryan Swamy, said the agreement would formalise existing arrangements with the Maldives but the details would have to wait until Shihab returned.
Zuhair said the MoU was “very important because it gives notice that the Maldives will not allow terrorist operations here.”
“The Maldives is very important to India’s security – the Mumbai bombers attacked via sea,” Zuhair said. “The sea is India’s vulnerable underbelly because there are so many entry points, and the Maldives can be very helpful with that because every day we have 1,500 fishing vessels sometimes 70-100 kilometres out to sea. If they see any suspicious vessels they can coordinate the information through various centres in the Maldives.”
The system appeared to work, Zuhair said, because after the president’s speeches following the Mumbai bombing several poaching vessels were apprehended based on information from fishing boats.
India was already assisting the Maldives to establish a chain of coastal radars stations across the country’s atolls, he said, which will be networked with India’s own radar network.
Zuhair acknowledged that such defence cooperation might “concern” countries like China, but he noted that “of all our neighbours India is the natural country of choice to assist the Maldives.”
Last week Al Jazeera reported that a group seven fighters linked to the Taliban met in the Maldives with Afghan MPs to discuss an ambitious peace plan whereby Taliban soldiers would be paid to put down their arms. Al Jazeera’s report claimed the fighters chose the Maldives as the venue for the talks because it was “the only place they felt safe.”
Zuhair emphasised that the Maldives “will not allow terrorists to operate in the country and put the Maldives’ and our neighbours’ peace and security at risk.