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Last Updated: Monday, 19 July, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
MPs walk out of Maldives assembly
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
President Gayoom has been ruling the Maldives for 25 years
Nearly a quarter of the members of the Maldives new constitutional assembly have staged a walkout during its first sitting in the the capital, Male.

The unprecedented defiance led to the 24 MPs being surrounded by police, who in turn were surrounded by onlookers.

The angry scenes came as the assembly discussed re-drafting the country's constitution and introducing reforms.

A government spokesman downplayed the incident, saying differences with the opposition had now been resolved.

MPs 'frightened'

The BBC's Frances Harrison in Colombo says that the trouble began with an argument about whether the new Speaker should be elected by a show of hands or secret ballot.

There is no need to hold a secret ballot because allegations that members of the assembly may be intimidated are simply not true
Government spokesman Ahmad Shaheed
After more than an hour of dispute, opposition activists and journalists say up to 30 of the newly-elected representatives walked out in protest, and the session was stopped.

The opposition believed its candidate for Speaker would win, but only if there were a secret ballot, because they say many MPs are frightened.

The MPs who walked out went to President Abdul Gayoom's office, where they were told only one of them could meet him.

When they insisted the whole group should see him, the opposition activists say the security forces surrounded them.

Dispute 'settled'

The Maldives Chief Government spokesman, Ahmad Shaheed, told BBC News Online that the MPs who had walked out had been granted a meeting with the president even though they arrived unannounced at his residence.

Mr Shaheed says that a recess of the assembly had been ordered so that complaints over the appointment of a Speaker could be examined.

"There is no need to hold a secret ballot," Mr Shaheed said, "because allegations that members of the assembly may be intimidated are simply not true."

Mr Shaheed said that the disagreement had been settled amicably, and that that there was also no truth in reports that the security forces had been placed on high alert.

Last September, anti-government protests broke out in the Maldivian capital for the first time.

Our correspondent says that the walkout by MPs appears to be another sign of increasing frustration with the slow pace of political reform in the Maldives, which has been run by President Gayoom for the past 25 years.

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