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Trouble in paradise: Maldives president quits after cops mutiny

Maldives Presidential Office via AFP - Getty Images

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed announces his resignation during a televised press conference.

Updated at 6:16 a.m. ET

MALE, Maldives -- President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives resigned on Tuesday after weeks of protests erupted into a police mutiny, leaving the man widely credited with bringing democracy to the paradise islands accused of being as dictatorial as his predecessor.

Nasheed handed power over the Indian Ocean archipelago to Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who previously worked as a top UNICEF official. He was sworn in as the new Maldivian president in the afternoon.

Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago known for luxurious resorts for upmarket tourists, has a new democracy after being under autocratic rule for 30 years. 

"I resign because I am not a person who wishes to rule with the use of power," Nasheed said in a televised address. "I believe that if the government were to remain in power it would require the use of force which would harm many citizens.

"I resign because I believe that if the government continues to stay in power, it is very likely that we may face foreign influences."

It was not immediately clear to what influences he was referring. India helped foil a coup on the islands in 1988 by sending a battalion of soldiers to back the government.

A spokesman for India's Foreign Ministry, Syed Akbaruddin, said the rebellion was an internal matter of the Maldives "to be resolved by the Maldives."

In the morning, soldiers fired teargas at police and demonstrators who besieged the Maldives National Defence Force headquarters in Republic Square.

Sinan Hussain / AP

A police officer, in blue, charges soldiers during a clash in Male on Tuesday.

Reuters reported that mutinying police took over the state broadcaster and broadcast an opposition-linked station's calls for people to come on the streets to overthrow Nasheed.

Nasheed, a former pro-democracy political prisoner, campaigned successfully for democratic reforms and was elected to office in 2008 in the country's first multiparty election. He spoke out passionately on the dangers of climate change to the low-lying islands.

The violence on the Indian Ocean archipelago best-known as a beach getaway is the worst in a struggle between Nasheed, widely credited with ushering in full democracy to the archipelago, and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year rule was widely seen as autocratic.

Constitutional crisis
Protests began weeks ago after Nasheed ordered the military to arrest the top criminal court judge, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of the former president.

That set off a constitutional crisis that has Nasheed in the unaccustomed position of defending himself of acting like a dictator.

Gayoom's opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives accused the military of firing rubber bullets at protesters and a party spokesman, Mohamed Hussain "Mundhu" Shareef, said "loads of people" were injured. He gave no specifics.

An official close to Nasheed denied the government had used rubber bullets, but confirmed that about three dozen police officers defied orders overnight and smashed up the main rallying point of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party.

"This follows Gayoom's party calling for the overthrow of the Maldives' first democratically elected government and for citizens to launch jihad against the president," said the official.

The protests, and the scramble for position ahead of next year's presidential election, have seen parties adopting hardline Islamist rhetoric and accusing Nasheed of being anti-Islamic.

On Twitter, opposition-linked groups or individuals have called for Nasheed's impeachment and, in at least one case, beheading under Shariah law.

The trouble has also shown the longstanding rivalry between Gayoom and Nasheed, who was jailed for a combined six years after being arrested 27 times by Gayoom's government while agitating for democracy.

The trouble has been largely invisible to the 900,000 or so well-heeled tourists who come very year to visit desert islands swathed in aquamarine seas, ringed by beaches of icing-sugar sands, would get a hint of that.

'Potentially a tropical Afghanistan'
Most tourists are whisked straight to their island hideaway by seaplane or speedboat, where they are free to drink alcohol and get luxurious spa treatments, insulated from the everyday Maldives, a fully Islamic state where alcohol is outlawed and skimpy beachwear frowned upon.

Maldivian intelligence officers and Western officials say hardline Salafist and Wahabist groups are gaining political ground in the more distant atolls and making a beachhead in Male.

The capital island is home to almost 200,000 of the Maldives' 330,000 people, all Sunni Muslims. It is also home to the majority of the estimated 30,000 people on the islands who are addicted to heroin, according to U.N. estimates.

"It's potentially a tropical Afghanistan. The same forces that gave rise to the Taliban are there -- the drugs, the corruption and the behavior of the political class," a Colombo-based Western ambassador who is responsible for the Maldives told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.