REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- The Maldives' first democratically elected president resigned Tuesday after weeks of protest over his decision to sack a judge he had accused of favoring the opposition.
A government statement posted on the president's website said state institutions were working to bring peace and stability to the island nation even as it called on citizens to remain calm.
"It will be better for the country in the current situation if I resign,” President Mohamed Nasheed told a televised news conference. "I don't want to run the country with an iron fist."
Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan was sworn in as president a short time later.
Given that police officers sided with anti-government demonstrators and a portion of the army stayed loyal to the president, Nasheed averted a civil war by resigning, said Anand Kumar, associate fellow with New Delhi's Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis, a think tank.
The unrest has regional implications, he added. "Any uncertainty in the Maldives allows other parties to creep in, Pakistan but mostly China," he said. "That could be a threat to the U.S. as well. China's been looking for an opportunity there."
Nasheed, a former political prisoner and human rights activist, was elected in 2008 when the Indian Ocean nation held its first democratic election following three decades of rule by autocratic leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Last month, Nasheed ordered the army to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed. The government alleged that the judge's rulings -- including the release of an opposition activist detained without a warrant -- were politically motivated and symptomatic of deep bias within the judicial system.
In a bid to ease the political crisis, Nasheed's government appealed to the United Nations to mediate, which it had been scheduled to do on Thursday.
Ahmed Tholal, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives, said he was hopeful that despite the weak roots of democracy in the islands, the country wouldn't drift back toward strongman rule. Though there are problems with the judiciary, Tholal said, any reform or change of individual judges must be done within constitutional limits.
"Going beyond that is not a solution," he said. "But I hope people realize what happened today is an anomaly and not the rule."
Much of the Maldives, a chain of more than 1,100 mostly uninhabited islands, are only a few feet above sea level and suffered significant damage during the 2004 Asian tsunami. Nasheed has been an energetic environmental campaigner, attempting to shine a spotlight on the plight of small island nations faced with the threat of climate change and rising sea levels.
The islands are a popular destination for high-end tourists. But there's trouble in paradise, including drug abuse, high unemployment among young people, an increase in Islamic fundamentalism and a drop in visitors caused by the global economic downturn, all of which had increased displeasure with Nasheed's rule.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Soldiers supporting the government in Maldives, left, clash with police officers opposed to the president in the city of Male on Tuesday. Credit: Sinan Hussain / Associated Press