The Maldives Coastguard on Wednesday stopped and brought back to shore a group of seven tourists at sea on board a fishing vessel in southern Maldives. The tourists are accused of planning “activities that could harm Maldives’ interests and reputation abroad.”
Girogio Rosi Belliere, an Italian businessman on board the vessel, angrily dismissed the Maldivian coastguard’s claims today, saying the group had been on a whale-watching trip, just 57 nautical miles south of Addu Atoll and well within the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Whales are spotted around 100 nautical miles from the shoreline, he said.
Territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the shoreline, while the EEZ extends up to 200 miles from the shoreline.
The seven tourists also include American and Canadian nationals.
They were onboard a Maldivian fishing vessel, Fahi Roalhi, with 16 Maldivian crewmembers. At midnight on August 10, a Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) helicopter and a speedboat accosted them at sea and ordered them to head back to Addu. No arrests were made.
The tourists were prevented from leaving Addu this morning, but are due to return to Malé tonight.
“This is absolutely ridiculous. We have done nothing wrong,” Rosi said. He owns a tour company, Seafari Adventures, which offers safari boat tours in the Maldives.
Crew members who wished to remain anonymous said another fishing vessel had provided false information to the Coastguard when the tourists turned the boat down and chose Fahi Roalhi.
Mohamed Zuhair, a state minister at the defence ministry, told the press on Wednesday that the tourists had left the Maldives’ territorial waters, its EEZ and entered the territory of a foreign country. The Chagos Archipelago, a British territory, is located south of Maldives.
The coastguard had received information that they were en route to Diego Garcia, where an American military base is located, MNDF spokesperson Major Adnan Ali said.
“They group has asked around to see if they could carry out certain activities on the way to Diego Garcia. Even if I do not give details of these activities, there are several concerning aspects to this.”
Coastguard Commander Colonel Mohamed Ibrahim said: “The coastguard carried out this operation to save the lives and property of the Maldivian citizens and to protect tourists. And to protect the Maldivian state’s interests, dignity and honor among our neighbors and the international community.”
The MNDF also claimed the tourists had not sought the necessary clearance from the department of immigration and customs before leaving the Maldives. The coastguard further claimed that fishing vessels cannot be used for tourist excursions. The case is under investigation.
Journalists were barred from asking questions.
Speaking to Maldives Independent, Rosi said: “It is not true that we were travelling to Diego Garcia, we did not even think of doing that.”
Rosi said he was with a group of “very rich Canadian and American tourists” who had initially planned to travel to Salomon Islands and Peros Banhos, part of the Chagos archipelago and north of Diego Garcia.
They had abandoned plans when a fishing vessel they first contacted said permission was required from Maldivian authorities to leave the country’s territorial waters.
“The are very rich travelers, competing against other travelers looking to visit the remotest places. Our intention was to anchor at the British territory of Peros Banhos for one hour, just to tick the place off the list of around 880 remote places we aimed at visiting, we just wanted a photo on the island” Rosi said.
“We planned to make a stop there for around one hour, so there would not have been any problems from the British authorities.”
The owner and crew of the boat Julie were unwilling, so the group decided to go whale watching as their flights from Addu were scheduled for August 13.
Fahi Roalhi was booked for two days. The boat set out at 6:00pm on Tuesday. At midnight they suddenly heard the sound of a helicopter.
“They spoke on a megaphone, and ordered us to stop. The crew explained that we were going whale watching. After around 30 minutes they apologetically told us that we must return back to Feydhoo in Addu City,” he said.
“This is absurd. We will file complaints with our embassies,” he added.
Mohamed Inan, the owner of Fahi Roalhi, also dismissed claims the boat had left the EEZ and was en route to Diego Garcia.
“The boat has a maximum speed of around 12.5 nautical miles, the captain informed me that the boat travelled 9.5 to 10 nautical miles due to rough seas and safety concerns, so it is mathematically impossible to have travelled beyond Maldivian waters by midnight,” he said.
The boat was stopped just 57 nautical miles south of Addu, he said.
The captain on his own initiative had contacted the coastguard at 9pm on Tuesday, after receiving reports that a complaint had been lodged with the MNDF, Inan said. “Even at that point, the coastguard did not ask the boat to return.”
Fahi Roalhi returned to Addu at 7am on August 10.
The tourists were held for 12 hours at the police station. “Although we were treated politely and properly fed, there was no air-conditioning and the place was extremely uncomfortable,” Rosi said.
Additional writing by Zaheena Rasheed
Correction: This article previously said Rosi is German and is a tourist. This is incorrect. He is Italian and operates a safari boat tour company in the Maldives.