1988 Maldives coup d'état

The 1988 Maldives coup d'état was the attempt by 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), to overthrow the government in the island republic of Maldives. The coup d'état failed after the Maldivian National Security service eliminated the terrorist leaders of PLOTE. At the realization of the attacks failure, the terrorist group hijacked a Maldivian freighter named MV Progresslight and set sail towards Sri Lanka. After the terrorists escaped, the Indian Army was called for help and they intervened the operation, code named Operation Cactus. The freighter was caught, hostages retrieved and the mercenaries brought into custody.

1988 Maldives coup d'état
Part of Sri Lankan Civil War and Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War

An Indian Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft of the model used to transport Indian paratroopers to Malé.
Date3 November 1988
Maldives, Indian Ocean
Result Decisive Indian/Maldivian victory
Government rule restored in Maldives
People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam
Maldivian rebels
Commanders and leaders
R. Venkataraman
Rajiv Gandhi
Brigadier Farouk Bulsara
Colonel Subhash Joshi
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
Uma Maheswaran
 Abdullah Luthufi (POW)
 Sagaru Ahmed Nasir (POW)
 Ahmed Ismail Manik Sikka (POW)

1,600 Indian paratroopers

Maldivian National Security Service (presently known as Maldives National Defense Force)
80–100 gunmen
Casualties and losses
19 Maldivians killed, out of which 8 were NSS (National Security Service) personnel, 39 injured of which 18 were NSS personal. 4 hostages killed, 3 hostages unaccounted for. Several mercenaries were killed and some were captured. 27 hostages were taken, 20 were retrieved. 4 killed and the other 3 unknown.


Whereas the 1980 and 1983 coup d'état attempts against Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's presidency were not considered serious, the third coup d'état attempt in November 1988 alarmed the international community. About 80 armed PLOTE mercenaries[1] landed in the capital Malé before dawn aboard speedboats from a freighter. Disguised as visitors, a similar number had already infiltrated Malé earlier. The mercenaries quickly gained control of the capital, including the major government buildings, airport, port, television and radio stations. However, they failed to capture President Gayoom, who fled from house to house and asked for military intervention from India, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Indian government immediately dispatched 1,600 troops by air to restore order in Malé.[2]

Operation Cactus

According to Rejaul Karim Laskar, a scholar of Indian foreign policy, India's intervention in the attempted coup became necessary as in the absence of Indian intervention, external powers would have been tempted to intervene or even to establish bases in Maldives which being in India’s backyard would have been detrimental to India’s national interest.[3] India, therefore, intervened with “Operation Cactus”.

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 from President Gayoom.[2][4]

The Indian paratroopers immediately secured the airfield, crossed over to Malé using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom. The paratroopers restored control of the capital to President Gayoom's government within hours. Some of the mercenaries fled toward Sri Lanka in a hijacked freighter. Those unable to reach the ship in time were quickly rounded up and handed over to the Maldives government. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, most of them mercenaries. The dead included two hostages killed by the mercenaries. The Indian Navy frigates Godavari and Betwa intercepted the freighter off the Sri Lankan coast, and captured the mercenaries. Swift operation by the military and precise intelligence information successfully quelled the attempted coup d'état in the island nation.[5]


India received international praise for the operation. United States President Ronald Reagan expressed his appreciation for India's action, calling it "a valuable contribution to regional stability". British Prime Minister 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.[6]


In July 1989, India repatriated the mercenaries captured on board the hijacked freighter to Maldives to stand trial. President Gayoom commuted the death sentences passed against them to life imprisonment under Indian pressure.[7]

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 President Ibrahim 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.[5]

The operation also strengthened Indo-Maldivian relations as a result of the successful restoration of the Gayoom government.

Published accounts


Operation Cactus : How India Averted Maldives Crisis in 1988 (2018) is a TV documentary which premièred on Veer by Discovery Channel series, Battle Ops.[8]

See also


  1. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Archived 2 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  2. Chordia, AK (n.d.). "Operation Cactus". Bharat-Rakshak.com. Archived from the original on 21 September 2009. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  3. Laskar, Rejaul (September 2014). "Rajiv Gandhi's Diplomacy: Historic Significance and Contemporary Relevance". Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Diplomatist. 2 (9): 47. Retrieved 8 March 2018.
  4. Kapoor, Subodh (1 July 2002). The Indian Encyclopaedia. Cosmo Publications. pp. 5310–11. ISBN 978-81-7755-257-7. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  5. Archived 11 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  6. David Brewster. "Operation Cactus: India's 1988 Intervention in the Maldives. Retrieved 14 August 2014".
  7. Madagascar Security Concerns – Flags, Maps, Economy, History, Climate, Natural Resources, Current Issues, International Agreements, Population, Social Statistics, Political System
  8. "This R-Day, get ready for Discovery channel's 'Battle Ops'". The Hindu. 25 January 2018. Retrieved 22 April 2018.
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