By Hassan Mohamed and Zaheena Rasheed
The Maldives security forces have seized a large cache of weapons including firearms, grenades and improvised explosive devices from an island leased for resort development.
The arms cache was submerged 42 meters under the water on Hibalhidhoo Island in central Baa Atoll.
The raid was conducted on information obtained from individuals arrested over an explosion on President Abdulla Yameen’s speedboat, the police said. A total of seven people, including Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, have been arrested over the alleged assassination attempt.
The police and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) officers raided Hibalhidhoo on October 28. An overland search of the island with metal detectors did not yield any results. Then, on the morning of October 30, divers found two big bags, weighed down by large rocks, near the channel into the island’s harbor.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Abdulla Nawaz said the find was the largest illegal arms cache ever discovered in the Maldives.
“This is not a cause for public concern,” he said.
Although the arms cache had been discovered based on information provided by individuals arrested over the blast, Nawaz said it is difficult to explain how the weapons were linked to the boat blast.
MNDF Captain Ali Ihsan, a member of the inquiry commission set up to investigate the blast, said: “The MNDF wants to make note of the fact that these include improvised devices that could be set off anywhere, and could be detonated remotely, without knowing who set it off. These also include firearms that could be fired at individuals within 50 meters to 300 meters, and grenades that can cause a lot of damage if set off between 15 to 50 meters.”
Reporters were first shown the arms and explosives on a coastguard vessel at 5:30pm today, just after the cache was transported to the capital Malé. The bags were then moved to the police’s Iskandhar Koshi and laid out on a table.
They included an AK T56 rifle and 126 bullets, an MP5 submachine gun and 43 bullets, a Browning 9mm pistol, a sniper riflescope, two hand grenades, Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) without an initiation system, primers, plastic explosives, remote controls and detonators for IEDs, and materials that could be used to produce IEDs.
“The arms have been under the sea, in salt, for some 72 hours. As you can see, some of the weapons are rusted beyond use,” Ihsan said.
Hibalhidhoo was leased for tourism to a company called Biznas Maldives Pvt Ltd in August last year. The island is to remain under police watch for a month.
Nawaz declined to comment on whether the weapons were linked to religious extremists and if any foreigners had been arrested over the blast.
He also declined to comment on the involvement of the security forces in the import of the weapons and the making of the IEDs. The commission is looking into whether the arms are linked to the state armory, he added.
Ihsan meanwhile said wires used to set off fireworks were found in the cache. The commission is investigating the state-owned Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation’s (MMPRC) controversial import of a fireworks shipment earlier this year. Yameen had said the shipment had been rushed through customs without a proper check of what else was inside the crates.
The security forces have raided more than a dozen buildings in Malé, a house in southern Addu City and another uninhabited island in Lhaviyani Atoll as part of the inquiry into the September 28 blast.
Yameen escaped unhurt, but his wife remains hospitalized.
Citing forensic analysis by Sri Lankan and Saudi Arabian experts, the inquiry commission has said that a bomb targeting the president caused the explosion.
A chemical called RDX, a powerful explosive, was found on the boat, according to the Saudis, the commission has said.
Yameen has accused his deputy Adeeb of obstructing the inquiry by exerting undue influence over the police force. The defence minister and police chief are among several top government officials who have been dismissed since the blast.
Adeeb has denied any involvement in the blast. He is now facing impeachment.