Male: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday sought to deepen India’s ties with the Maldives stressing New Delhi’s commitment to assisting the atoll nation in its development and security goals as the two countries signed a slew of agreements in areas ranging from defence, health and connectivity strengthen their bilateral partnership.

Modi is in Male on a day long visit, his first visit abroad after taking office for a second term on 30 May, underlining New Delhi’s “neighbourhood first" foreign policy focus that has continued from his first term in office.

On his part, Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohammed Solih underlined his government’s "India-First Policy," pledging “his government’s full support towards deepening the multifaceted, mutually beneficial partnership... which has traditionally been characterized by trust, transparency, mutual understanding and sensitivity," a joint statement said.

Ties between India and the Maldives have turned considerably warmer after the election of Solih as president in September. New Delhi’s equation with former president Abdullah Yameen was far from cordial given Yameen’s crackdown on political parties in his country and his focus on deepening ties with India’s strategic rival China.

On his arrival on Saturday, Modi was warmly welcomed in Male with his visit being accorded a “State Visit" status – reserved for heads of state rather than government. Solih also conferred Maldives highest honor – the “Nishan Izzudeen" on Modi and the Indian prime minister addressed the Maldivian parliament – the Majlis—whose current speaker is the former Maldivian president Mohammed Nasheed.

The pacts signed on Saturday aim to draw the Maldives closer to India – deepening linkages in economic cooperation, tourism, health and connectivity. India has already given $ 1.4 billion dollars as budgetary support to the Maldives that has been weighed under debt to China. This is besides a $800 million Line of Credit signed in March for “people-centric and socio-economic projects including water and sanitation for many islands" besides on projects in areas like port development, health, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and energy. India has also extended grant assistance equalling $5.5 million for the implementation of “High Impact Community Development Projects" and a cash grant of $ 6.9 million for implementation of community infrastructure, access to education and environmental protection.

Modi in comments to reporters after talks with Solih, recalled India’s assistance to the Maldives in recent decades – from foiling a coup threatening to topple the then Maldivian government in 1988, to rendering help to the then government in Male after the December 2004 Tsunami besides airlifting gallons of drinking water supplies to the Maldives after a fire crippled a desalination plant in the country in December 2014. “India has always been the first to come forward" to help the Maldives, Modi said underlining India’s commitment to help Maldives in its times of distress.

“India gives top priority to its relations with the Maldives," Modi said adding that a “stable and prosperous Maldives is in the interest of the whole region."

The joint statement said that the “two leaders reiterated their strong commitment to further strengthening and invigorating the traditionally strong and friendly relations between India and the Maldives, nurtured by geographical contiguity, ethnic, historical, socio-economic and cultural ties between the peoples of the two countries."

Modi assured Solih of “India’s full support to the Maldives in realizing its aspirations for broad based socio-economic development, and strengthening of democratic and independent institutions," the statement said.

Cementing ties in the defence area was the composite training centre for the Maldivian Defence Forces that Modi and Solih unveiled together. The facility is in Maafilafushi. The two leaders also inaugurated a Coastal Surveillance Radar System by remote link which Modi said would help enhance the maritime security of the Maldives. “The two leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean Region, and to strengthen coordination in enhancing maritime security in the region, through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information, and capacity building," the joint statement said. “The two leaders acknowledged the recent joint exercise Ekatha conducted in April 2019. Both sides agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation on issues of common concern including piracy, terrorism, organised crime, drugs and human trafficking. They agreed to set up a Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism, Countering Violent Extremism and De-radicalisation," it said.

To strengthen connectivity between India and the Maldives besides inter island connectivity within the Maldives, Modi announced a ferry service between Kochi in India and Male and Kulhudhuffushi in the Maldives to Malé.

India will also be helping the Maldives carry out restoration of the Hukuru Miskiy (Friday Mosque) through an Indian grant, the joint statement said.

Later addressing the Majlis, Modi, only the second foreign Head of State or Government to address the parliament, in its 86 year history, slammed the "state sponsorship of terrorism" calling it a danger for all humanity and calling on the international community to host a global conference to tackle the challenge.

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