Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, elected only four years ago, quit under pressure after weeks of protests triggered by a judge's arrest escalated Tuesday with disgruntled policemen throwing their weight behind opposition activists.
A former rights campaigner who had increasingly come under attack for arbitrary rule, Nasheed, 44, announced that he was resigning as he did not want to use force to curb escalating street protests.
The resignation happened only after the army applied pressure on the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader, leading him in the morning to the television office to make his dramatic announcement, media reports said.
"I resign because I am not a person who wishes to rule with the use of power. I believe that if the government were to remain in power, it would require the use of force which would harm many citizens," he said in a statement broadcast on state-run television seized by rogue policemen.
"I resign because I believe that if the government continues to stay in power, it is very likely that we may face foreign influences," he said. "I have made this decision."
Maldivian authorities went out of their way to deny intense speculation that a coup had taken place.
The Maldives High Commission in Colombo said that Vice President Mohammad Waheed was now the acting president. But other reports said he was yet to be sworn in.
Nasheed's whereabouts were not immediately known following his exit. The Maldivian and foreign media reported jubilation on the streets of capital Male as opposition activists celebrated.
Nasheed had run into widespread anger after a senior judge, Abdulla Mohamed, was arrested by the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) over a fortnight ago on corruption charges.
The judge was reportedly confined to one of the lesser inhabited islands. The Maldives is made up of about 1,200 mostly small islands, with only 200 inhabited.
Supporters of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose three decades long rule ended with Nasheed's 2008 election, control parliament and have organised protests against the judge's internment.
Tension and sporadic violence had been escalating, with the ruling MDP alleging attacks on its supporters and offices by opposition activists not happy with long-time ruler Gayoom's departure.
According to Maldivian media, there was intense speculation Tuesday morning that Nasheed had been taken into custody. Shops and businesses in Male quickly shut down.
In the meantime, officers of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), the number ranging from 60 to 600, joined the demonstrations.
Events galloped rapidly thereafter. Opposition protesters and rogue policemen then seized the Maldives National Broadcasting Corp (MNBC) and quickly renamed it Television Maldives (TVM), reports said.
That led a government official to say a coup attempt was underway, causing concern in many capitals, including New Delhi.
The presidency denied Nasheed had resigned, until the president actually stepped down.
The opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) earlier told Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader that most police and army personnel were backing Nasheed's removal.
DQP spokesperson Mohamad Malech Jamal said there were now celebrations in Male.
He said the Male airport and the state broadcaster were under the control of the police and army.
Violence broke out Monday night as the army and police were deployed to break up protesters, opposition figures said.
"About 800 police officers gathered at the Republic Square. Several of them called for the president's resignation," Jamal was quoted as saying.
The Maldivian government earlier appealed for calm.
"The government of Maldives together with all state institutions will work to ensure peace and stability in Male," a statement said.
"Government calls to people to remain calm and support to stabilize the situation," it added.
A tourist haven, the Maldives is made up of several atolls and lies southwest of Sri Lanka. It has a population of about 400,000, most of them Sunni Muslims. The main language is Dhivehi, a Sinhalese dialect.
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