Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Maldives fears foreign terror cells as religious tensions rise

The Maldives has begun a crackdown on Islamic militant groups in an effort to prevent international terror networks from setting up cells here, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom told AFP.

The president said a small minority of the Indian Ocean archipelago's 330,000 Sunni Muslims had begun preaching an extremist form of Islam that could affect the peaceful image of the popular tourist destination.

A bomb attack targeting foreign tourists here last month followed by violent clashes with police and security forces had alerted the country to the "very serious threat of extremism," he said in an interview at his seafront office at the weekend.

"Maldivians are influenced by what is happening in the world. They go to Pakistan, study in madrassas and come back with extreme religious ideas," said Gayoom, who is an Islamic scholar from Egypt's Cairo University.

Asked whether foreign groups could be funding Maldivian extremists, Gayoom said: "It is very plausible... We have taken enough measures to deal with the problem. We take it very seriously."

He said there was evidence that extremists may be receiving funding from abroad and the unrest could allow international terror groups to capitalise and set up cells in the country unless authorities applied pressure.

Maldivian police said there was no hard evidence of Al-Qaeda operating here, but that the possibility could not be discounted.

Gayoom, 69, said the Maldives was sharing intelligence with neighbouring India and Sri Lanka as well as Britain and the United States to tackle Islamic militants.

More than 50 people, all Maldivians, are already in custody, according to officials.

The president said Islamic extremism had begun to affect the peaceful coral islands, better known as an up-market destination for honeymooners and well-heeled tourists than a hotbed of militancy.

"They want to lead a very primitive life. They want women to cover their faces," Gayoom said, referring to those already in custody.

"It is not good for the image of the country. We have been a liberal country for centuries."

Last week, the president ordered a ban on bearded mullahs, or clerics, entering his country unless invited by the authorities.

On Sunday he went a step further, announcing plans to bar Maldivians from travelling to extremist religious schools in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that advocate Taliban-style practices.

"Some of these extremist people have said that it is against Islam to sing," Gayoom said. "This is not proper religious teaching. Uneducated people are falling for it."

On Sunday, he also ordered an investigation into whether religious schools here were sticking to official texts.

Gayoom came to power in 1978 and under his rule the Maldives, a nation of 1,191 tiny coral islands scattered some 850 kilometres (550 miles) across the equator, has become South Asia's most prosperous economy.

He is worried that any sign of trouble could tarnish the peaceful image of the country, where some resorts charge as much as 14,500 dollars a night for the super-rich to stay at exclusive resorts on small, palm-fringed islands.

"We want to be known as very peaceful country with political and social stability. We are determined to preserve that image," he said.

He said the September 29 bombing that wounded 12 foreign nationals had led to cancellations of holidays here, but the industry had since recovered.

Resorts are reporting near full occupancy.

Reforms unveiled by Gayoom two years ago to allow political parties to function for the first time in living memory may have also led to open defiance of authority, according to officials here.

Gayoom said he hoped to complete the democratic reforms within a few months and contest elections due within a year "to complete the work I started."

Source: AFP

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