MALE, February 9, 2012 (AFP) - The new president of the Maldives Mohamed Waheed, who is accused by his predecessor of taking part in a coup, struggled Thursday to contain "anarchy" in the holiday paradise as protests and violence spread.
Waheed made two emergency cabinet appointments -- home and defence -- after supporters of former president Mohamed Nasheed stormed police stations and burned government buildings in outlying atolls of the archipelago nation.
"Even though the appointment of a national unity cabinet is taking time, the president made these two urgent appointments to take charge and control the spread of violence," presidential aide Mohamed Shareef told AFP.
"What you see on the roads is anarchy," he said.
The mayor of the second-biggest city of Addu, Abdulla Sodig, told AFP that police stations had been torched overnight. "There's no law and order at all. It's a complete breakdown," he said by telephone.
In the capital Male, thousands of pro-Nasheed protesters had clashed on Wednesday with security forces near the police and military headquarters, with unconfirmed media reports that three people had been killed.
Nasheed, who says he was forced to resign on Tuesday by rebel police and army officers, was beaten and detained. Several senior figures in his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were also targeted, and one was in critical condition.
A Maldives criminal court has now issued an arrest order for Nasheed and his former defence minister, officials in their party said. However, new police chief Abdulla Riyas said he had no knowledge of the order.
As the violence worsened, sweeping across at least eight islands outside the capital, Nasheed sent his wife and two daughters to neighbouring Sri Lanka, the government there confirmed.
It is the Maldives' worst unrest since clashes in 2003 following the death of a prisoner at the hands of security forces, an event which sparked the process of democratic change on the Indian Ocean islands.
The images of rioting are also potentially hugely damaging for a country which depends on tourism thanks to its crystal-clear turquoise waters, coral-fringed beaches and ultra-luxury resorts.
New president Waheed was sworn in Tuesday just hours after Nasheed announced his resignation in a televised press conference.
Nasheed later claimed that armed rebels had threatened him with weapons if he did not step down, a plot he alleged was backed by opposition leaders with the knowledge of Waheed, his former vice president.
A statement from the police said stations had been burned and attacked on at least eight islands, including Thinadhoo, Dhidhdhoo and Addu City.
In Addu, mayor Sodig said police were absent from the city streets, while troops were focused on protecting Gan Airport -- a major conduit for foreign tourists travelling from the Male to luxury resort islands.
Police Chief Inspector Abdul Mannan Yoosuf said that his officers were planning a "joint operation with the armed forces" to bring the situation in the nation under control."
In Washington, the State Department called for calm and said a senior US envoy would visit the Maldives on Saturday, but stopped short of describing events there as a coup -- a designation requiring a cutoff of all aid under US law.
In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, Nasheed reiterated his charge that a coup had taken place, and said the Maldives was sliding back into the era of "dictatorship" that preceded its first democratic elections in 2008.
"Let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship," Nasheed wrote.
Both Waheed and the army have categorically denied the coup charges, although a military spokesman admitted officers had "advised" him to step down.
Nasheed rose to power from grassroots opposition to the 30-year autocratic regime of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and was imprisoned on several occasions.
His clear victory over Gayoom in the 2008 elections was hailed as heralding a new era of democracy and progressive politics.
His dramatic resignation followed weeks of anti-government protests that escalated after Nasheed ordered the army to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed on charges of misconduct and favouring opposition figures.
Opposition parties accused Nasheed of trampling over the constitution.
The demonstrations were also swelled by religious conservatives who saw his administration as un-Islamic, attacking him on issues including flights carrying Israeli tourists and "improper" social conduct in resorts.