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Several thousand protest in the Maldives over ex-president's arrest

Tensions have escalated on the Maldives since former president Mohamed Nasheed was arrested last weekend

Thousands descended on the capital of the Maldives on Friday to protest against the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed and demand that current leader Abdulla Yameen resign.

Tensions have escalated on the cluster of tropical islands off India's southwestern tip since Nasheed was arrested last weekend on charges of terrorism relating to an incident when, as president, he ordered the arrest of a judge. Nasheed has denied ordering the arrest.

Nasheed, who was thrown to the ground as police dragged him to court on Monday, has said he was forced to resign at gunpoint over the judicial row in 2012, and allies say he was ousted in a coup.

Yameen, 55, won a November 2013 presidential poll whose second round was canceled when early results put Nasheed ahead. Nasheed, the first popularly elected president of the Maldives, eventually lost by a narrow marginand conceded defeat.

Supporters of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Jumhooree Party, which has broken away from Yameen's ruling coalition, converged by boat from across the nation of 1,190 islands after a call to rally in Male, the capital.

The crowd at the scene was estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000 people. The entire population of the Maldives, a popular destination for tourists, is less than 400,000. Police arrested about 31 people Friday, according to Minivan News, a newspaper in the Maldives.  

The rally, one of the largest ever in the tiny capital, was peaceful until it was officially called off. However, some protesters who continued a sit-in near Yameen’s home clashed with an unknown pro-government group trying to disrupt the protest. Two Molotov cocktails were thrown into a group of protesters, but no one was hurt, according to Minivan News. 

Authorities played down the size of the demonstration. Mohamed Hussain Shareef, a minister in Yameen's office, said police had found rods, machetes and knives on protesters.

"Numbers are average. Only a couple of thousand people at best," he told Reuters.

Protesters waved green-and-red national flags and chanted a song whose words included a call to "stand in defense of the constitution."

"Stop brutality," said a placard carried by a Nasheed supporter wearing yellow, the color of his MDP.

Others carried red and green Maldivian flags as they marched to a meeting venue while police in full riot gear deployed in the area.

"We are with you sir," said a placard that had a photo of the 47-year-old Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader.

The United States and regional power India have voiced concern over the charges, which carry a jail sentence of more than 10 years, and the manner in which Nasheed was dragged roughly into court on Monday and denied both legal access and medical treatment.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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