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India to remove most troops from neighboring Maldives. Remaining contingent stirs talk of regional ambitions

An Indian military intervention force sent last month to this Indian Ocean republic to crush a coup attempt by Sri Lankan mercenaries is expected to withdraw most of its remaining troops in the weeks ahead. But a small contingent will remain behind to train local security forces. While some Maldivians have said they are pleased that Indian troops will stay, others have expressed concern that New Delhi may seek to retain a permanent military force.

As many as 400 members of the Indian Armed Forces, according to local residents, are still stationed in Male and several other of the archipelago's nearly 1,200 coral islands. The country is southwest of Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent. Last week Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said India would continue to keep some troops on the islands. Local sources say the troops will probably number about 100.

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An estimated 80-strong mercenary force of badly equipped and trained Sri Lankans, described by one source as ``mainly skinny, poorly fed Tamils,'' are reported to have been involved in the abortive coup attempt. Because of the speed with which the Indian forces intervened, some South Asian-based diplomats have voiced suspicions that New Delhi may have had some involvement in the coup to provide them with an excuse to establish a military presence on these strategically placed islands.

``Whatever the reason, it is clear that India is interested in assuming a more prominent role as a regional superpower,'' noted one South Asian-based Western diplomat.

At present, Indian Army and government security force troops armed with Kalashnikov rifles are retaining a high profile, patrolling the streets of this tiny island capital. Workmen are in the process of repairing the damage, but some buildings still bear ricochet marks. Indian troops also guard the airport located on an adjacent island, while a Navy frigate remains anchored off the capital.

Government sources say that 68 people, mainly of Sri Lankan origin, reportedly Tamils as well as some Maldivians, are being held on a distant island prison. They have indicated the prisoners could face execution ``because of their treason.''

The Maldives, which depend heavily on tourism from Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan, have suffered since the coup. There have been numerous cancellations, particularly by package tours frightened off by the attempted coup. Despite the high Christmas season, many island resorts, popular because of their white coral beaches, crystal clear waters, and excellent reef diving, are only half full.

On an optimistic note, however, President Abdul Gayoom recently told journalists in Delhi that he felt the coup would improve tourism. This was particularly true, he said, for people with a sense of adventure, as they now know where the Maldives are situated.

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