India's flexing of regional muscle in Maldives spurs praise, concern

India's quick move to foil a coup attempt in the Maldives asserts New Delhi's role as watchdog of south Asia's security. Last week, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dispatched 1,600 troops and three ships to the tiny Indian Ocean island nation after about 150 foreign mercenaries on Thursday stormed the capital, Male, and President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom called for help.

The confrontation neared an end yesterday as 47 mercenaries, including the leader, surrendered to Indian naval forces. The mercenaries had commandeered several boats after the coup failed and fled with 27 hostages, four of whom were reported killed. Four civilians, eight members of security forces, and at least three mercenaries were killed in earlier fighting in the capital.

Fears of India's ambitions were muted among its smaller neighbors because President Abdul Gayoom had asked for help. Except for arch-rival Pakistan, those nations backed India's intervention, which was also supported by the United States and other Western powers. The Maldives are 400 miles southwest of India's southern tip.

However, the action underscores India's regional supremacy and its readiness to move quickly to head off intervention from outside the region, diplomats say.

``There have been many precedents where India has stepped in: Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sikkim, and here,'' says a senior diplomat in Sri Lanka, where more than 50,000 Indian troops are bogged down in a bid to end the island's five-year ethnic conflict. ``The Maldives are just one more reminder that New Delhi is ready to police the region.''

In addition to highlighting India's regional dominance, the Maldives incident gives Mr. Gandhi a timely boost at home. Facing national elections next year, Gandhi has been buffeted by corruption charges and sagging popularity.

For thwarting the coup attempt, the Gandhi government was praised widely in the press and political circles. ``Maldives is one of our closest and friendliest neighbors,'' Gandhi told an enthusiastic Indian parliament late last week. ``It appealed to us in desperation in its grave hour of need.''

An Asian diplomat in New Delhi says that the government will use ``this foreign escapade to draw attention away from its own political problems.''

Although forces began withdrawing late last week, Gandhi has not said how long Indian troops will remain. The Indian Army had been asked to assist with search operations, the prime minister said.

But in India and the region there were concerns that the Maldives incident not set a precedent. ``India is not a superpower,'' cautioned the authoritative Times of India. ``In this age of mass awareness and mobilization, even the superpowers have found the costs of intervention unacceptably high.''

In Sri Lanka, where Indian peacekeeping forces are fighting Tamil militants in the north and east of the country, there was widespread uneasiness over the Maldives intervention, which Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene endorsed. Mr. Jayewardene signed a peace accord in 1987 with the Indian prime minister aimed at bringing peace to Sri Lanka.

Diplomats suggest that the mercenaries may have been Tamil militants hired by businessmen supporting deposed Maldives' President Amit Ibrahim Nasir, who lives in Singapore. In exchange, the Tamil militants would establish a new weapons and drug-trafficking base in the Maldives to support their effort against Indian forces in Sri Lanka.

However, in Sri Lanka, where a wave of anti-Indian opinion is fueling an effort to topple the Jayewardene government, the Maldives operation reinforced fears of Indian hegemony.

``The Maldives may have invited them in,'' says a prominent Sri Lankan politician. ``But India seemed ready to move at a moment's notice, as if it was waiting for the opportunity.''

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