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New Delhi: As the clock ticks towards the March 10 deadline for India to pull out its military personnel from the Maldives, a team of Indian civilians has landed in the island nation to take over one of the three aviation platforms that India operates there, news agency PTI reported citing local media reports on Wednesday. The Maldives Defense Ministry said in a statement, quoted by a news portal themaldivesjournal.com, that the civilian team arrived in Addu last night to complete the handover/takeover process. “The civilian team will operate and maintain the aircraft,” the statement said.

This follows a high-level meeting in Delhi on February 2, where the Maldivian foreign ministry said that India agreed to replace its military personnel with civilians by May 10, and that the first phase of the process would be done by March 10.

News agency PTI citing sources said that the Indian military personnel, who are expected to be replaced by civilians with expertise in operating the three platforms, are currently manning the three Indian platforms that have been offering humanitarian and medical evacuation services to the Maldivian people for the past few years using two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft.

The move comes shortly after Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu, who is widely perceived as a pro-China leader, declared in his first speech to Parliament on February 5 that the first batch of Indian military personnel will leave the island nation before March 10. He said that the rest of the Indians operating the two aviation platforms will depart by May 10 as per the agreement between the two countries.

The news portal also reported on Wednesday that test flights will be conducted today (Wednesday) before the helicopter is sent to India for repairs. An Indian ship will arrive in Addu on February 28 carrying the replacement helicopter.

The Defense Ministry statement further said that the Indian troops will leave the Maldives on the agreed dates.

Muizzu, who became the President on November 17, formally asked India to withdraw 88 military personnel from his country by March 15, saying that the Maldivian people gave him a “strong mandate” to make this request to New Delhi.

After the latest round of bilateral talks, India said on February 2 that it reached a “set of mutually workable solutions” with the Maldives to continue the operations of Indian aviation platforms in the island nation.

The Maldives, which is located at the center of commercial sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), has a significant strategic value due to its closeness to India, which is only 70 nautical miles away from the island of Minicoy in Lakshadweep and 300 nautical miles away from the mainland’s western coast.

The Maldives has been a vital maritime neighbor of India in the IOR and it holds a special position in its initiatives such as SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and the Neighborhood First Policy.