Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj held a high-power meeting on Monday to discuss a deadline set by the Maldives for India to withdraw its helicopters gifted to the island nation, at least two senior officials confirmed.
According to sources, tensions over the presence of the two Indian helicopters in two different strategically important locations in Laamu and Addu atolls have been growing over the past few weeks, forcing the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to step in to defuse the situation.
“Maldives has given India a deadline by the month-end to remove its helicopters,” an official source told The Hindu. The government was discussing possible reactions to the move. Significantly, the meeting came just days after a vote at the U.N. for Security Council seats, where the Maldives claimed India had supported its candidature against that of Indonesia, an election that the Maldives lost nonetheless.
Relations between New Delhi and the Maldives have been frayed since last year, when Maldives rushed through a free trade agreement with China, and plummeted further after President Abdulla Yameen declared an emergency in the country in February.
India had gifted two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) to Maldives in 2013, of which one was operated by the Indian Coast Guard and the other by the Indian Navy, which were manned by six pilots and a number of maintenance ground staff. In the normal course, Letters of Exchange are renewed for two years at a time, but on this occasion the Yameen government refused to do so and has since made it clear that it would like India to remove them and their crew entirely.
The LoE of the Coast Guard ALH had expired a few months ago, while the Navy ALH is due to expire in June. India has yet to recall either helicopters, in the hope that the matter will be resolved through negotiations.
The controversy had an additional twist last month when visas given to the pilots operating the helicopter expired at the end of May. A defence source said that despite requests, the visas were not renewed immediately, causing some concern for the personnel. “The MEA had to step in to sort the issue and it has now been extended by a month till June 30,” the source said.
Maldives has also not approved an LoE sent by India for a Dornier maritime patrol aircraft that the Maldives had itself requested, but in less tense times.