A group of Maldivians led by Abdullah Luthufi and assisted by armed mercenaries of a Tamil secessionist organisation from Sri Lanka, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), plotted to overthrow the government in the island republic of Maldives in 1988. They infiltrated the Maldivian capital of Malé and took control of key points in the city. Abdul Gayoom personally (President) requested military assistance from several countries, including India, the United States, Britain, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and ‘other’ Asian states.
New Delhi responded to the crisis with uncharacteristic speed and decision, seeing it as India’s prerogative and its responsibility. The Indian Cabinet approved the dispatch of forces at 1530 hrs on November 3rd. 1,600 troops by air to restore order in Malé, landing on the nearby island of Hulhule which was still under the control of Maldivian security services. The operation started on the night of 3 November 1988, when Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft of the Indian Air Force airlifted the elements of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brig Farukh Bulsara, the 6th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and, the 17th Parachute Field Regiment from Agra Air Force Station and flew them non-stop over 2,000 kilometres (1,240 mi) to land them over the Malé International Airport on Hulhule Island. The Indian Army paratroopers arrived on Hulhule in nine hours after the appeal.
The Indian paratroopers immediately secured the airfield, crossed over to Male using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, most of them mercenaries. The dead included two hostages killed by the mercenaries.
Additional Indian troops were transported by air and by sea from Cochin. Indian Air Force Mirages were deployed over Malé as a show of force.
Shortly thereafter a vessel was seen fleeing Male and it was discovered that mercenaries were on board with hostages, including the Maldivian Minister of Education. Cdr. of the 17 Para Fd. Regt. rushed its heavy machine guns and rocket launchers to the southern tip of the island and fired on the ship. Though the 17 Para Fd. Regt. scored hits, the ship escaped only to be boarded by the Indian Navy the following day.
The ship was detected by an IL-38 May maritime recon aircraft, from the Indian Navy, and was then tracked by an Tu-142M Bear-F, another maritime recon aircraft of the Indian Navy, until 2 Indian Naval vessels, the INS Tir and INS Godavari were able to capture the absconding ship. Two Sea King choppers, from the one of the naval vessels, dropped depth charges to deter evasion.
The Indian Marine Strike Force (now known as the Marine Commando Force – MARCOS) commandos boarded the vessel and took control without any resistance from the mercenaries. Operation Cactus was concluded without any casualties to India, except for an Indian soldier who shot himself in the foot.
India received international praise for the operation. President Reagan expressed his appreciation for India’s action, calling it ‘a valuable contribution to regional stability’. Margaret Thatcher reportedly commented: ‘Thank God for India: President Gayoom’s government has been saved. But the intervention nevertheless caused some disquiet among India’s neighbours in South Asia.
In July 1989, India repatriated the mercenaries captured on board the hijacked freighter toMaldives to stand trial. President Gayoom commuted the death sentences passed against them to life imprisonment under Indian pressure.
The 1988 coup d’état had been headed by a once prominent Maldivian businessperson named Abdullah Luthufi, who was operating a farm on Sri Lanka. Former Maldivian PresidentIbrahim Nasir was accused, but denied any involvement in the coup d’état. In fact, in July 1990, President Gayoom officially pardoned Nasir in absentia in recognition of his role in obtaining Maldives’ independence.
The operation also strengthened Indo-Maldivian relations as a result of the successful restoration of the Gayoom government.
(Extracted from India’s Ocean: the story of India’s bid for regional leadership by David Brewster’, and other sources )