New Delhi (AFP) - The Maldives government is "extremely worried" about the number of nationals from the tiny troubled honeymoon islands joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, a top official said on Monday (Mar 14).
Maldives foreign secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed said as many as 40 people have travelled to the Middle East from the Indian Ocean archipelago, which has a population of just 350,000 - mainly Sunni Muslims.
"It is a big concern for us, it is a social concern, it's a security concern and we are extremely worried about it," the country's top diplomatic official told reporters in New Delhi.
"The total number of people we believe that have gone to the Middle East to engage in this illegal warfare is less than 40." He said the Maldives, like bigger and more developed nations, is "finding it difficult to grasp the situation".
Former president Mohamed Nasheed, whose conviction and jailing last year has been widely criticised, has warned that up to 200 Maldivians were fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Mohamed denied the figure was that high, but said vulnerable groups were being targeted for recruitment including online, and the island chain was "extremely vulnerable".
The Maldives last year introduced a tough anti-terror law intended to target suspected ISIS sympathisers among others. The opposition has criticised the law, warning it would be used to further crack down on dissent in a country that has been reeling from political turmoil.
Mohamed said the Maldives was being careful not to encroach on human rights as it tries to stem recruitment and carry out any prosecutions.
Experts say poor young people from outlying islands are vulnerable to recruitment, along with those caught up in organised crime including gang violence or targeted by radical preachers.
The Maldives' reputation as a luxury holiday destination has been tarnished by political turmoil since Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected president, was toppled four years ago in what he called a coup led by mutinous police and soldiers.
Mohamed said the prison office was awaiting more documents before deciding on Nasheed's request to extend his 30-day release from prison to travel to the UK for medical treatment.
Nasheed, who has met Prime Minister David Cameron since flying to Britain in January, was jailed last year on terrorism charges relating to the arrest of an allegedly corrupt judge in 2012, when he was still in power.