MALE, Maldives — The new Maldivian president called Wednesday for a unity government to lead his Indian Ocean nation even as his predecessor called his ousting a coup and began fighting to return to power.
President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, the former vice president, took office Tuesday when Mohamed Nasheed resigned after police joined widening street protests against his government.
Addressing a news conference Wednesday, Hassan denied claims there was a plot to oust Nasheed. He said he had not prepared to take over the country and he called for the creation of a unity coalition to help the country recover from months of political turmoil.
"Together, I am confident, we'll be able to build a stable and democratic country," he said, adding that his government intended to respect the rule of law.
Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president, was already fighting back. Speaking to about 2,000 wildly cheering members of his Maldivian Democratic Party in the capital, Male, Nasheed insisted he was forced from office in a coup and demanded Hassan's immediate resignation.
He demanded the nation's top judge investigate those he says were responsible for his ouster.
The party reaffirmed Nasheed as its leader and declared it would not join Hassan's planned coalition.
"We will come to power again," Nasheed said. "We will never step back. I will not accept this coup and will bring justice to the Maldivians."
Earlier Wednesday, authorities said Nasheed was under police and army watch at an undisclosed location for his own protection. Other than two military bodyguards for Nasheed, there did not appear to be any other government troops at his party rally.
Hassan, who had promised to protect Nasheed from retribution, said his predecessor was not under any restriction and was free to leave the country. However, he said he would not interfere with any police or court action against Nasheed.
Police were investigating the discovery of at least 100 bottles of alcohol inside a truck removing garbage Tuesday from the presidential residence as Nasheed prepared to relinquish power, said police spokesman Ahmed Shyam. Consuming alcohol outside tourist resorts is a crime in this Muslim nation. If charged and convicted of possession of alcohol, Nasheed could be sent to jail for three years, banished to a distant island, placed under house arrest or fined.
Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi called on the new government not to seek retribution against Nasheed.
Nasheed presented his resignation in a nationally televised address Tuesday afternoon after police joined demonstrators who had spent weeks protesting his decision to arrest a top judge and then clashed with soldiers in the streets. Some of the soldiers then defected to the police side. The protests ceased with the change in power.
Nasheed's party insisted his ouster was a "coup" engineered by rogue elements of the police and supporters of the country's former autocratic leader. Others blamed Islamic extremists.
Nasheed did not address the specifics of his resignation, but defended his government.
"I did not want wealth or to continue in the presidency, but I wanted to bring good governance," he said.
The dueling leaders ran as a ticket in the nation's first multiparty elections in 2008 after Nasheed's MDP formed a coalition with Hassan's Gaumee Itthihaad Party, or National Unity Party.
Hassan sought to tamp down fears that Islamists were gaining power in the country.
"They are part of the society; you can't ignore them," he said. "But there are wide range of people with different views, philosophies and ideas about politics. I am planning to create a plural multiparty government."
He also worked to reassure the vital tourism industry that the country, known for its stunning beaches and lavish resorts, remained a peaceful place to visit.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement he hoped Nasheed's resignation would lead to a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. He called on all Maldivians to cement the nation's democratic gains.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco is scheduled to lead a U.N. team to the country later this week to help the Maldives resolve its political tensions.
Nasheed's resignation marked a stunning fall for the former human rights campaigner who defeated the nation's longtime ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the country's first multiparty elections in 2008. Nasheed was also an environmental celebrity calling for global action to combat the climate change that could raise sea levels and inundate his archipelago nation.
In a phone call with U.S. officials, Hassan expressed his strong commitment to a peaceful transition of power and the preservation of democracy.
Hassan Saeed, a former attorney general and Nasheed ally, hoped that Nasheed's resignation ends political bickering that has become a hallmark since the country became a multiparty democracy.
"I am happy that the rule of law and justice prevailed," he said.
Over the past year, Nasheed was battered by protests over soaring prices and demands for more religiously conservative policies.
Francis reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka.