COLOMBO (AFP) — Maldivian president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom escaped assassination in his Indian Ocean archipelago thanks to a teenage boy scout who wrestled back a knife-wielding attacker, officials said.
"The president was greeting people" when the would-be assassin, a 20-year-old unemployed man, "pulled out a knife and tried to stab him in the stomach," Information Minister Mohamed Nasheed told AFP by telephone.
The attack took place on Hoarafushi in the north of the Maldives, a Muslim-majority nation on a chain of 1,192 coral and white sand islands off the southern tip of India.
Gayoom, who has ruled the islands since 1978 and is Asia's longest serving president, was unhurt but the scout sustained cuts to his hand. The assailant was arrested and was being questioned, police said.
The Maldives, a top destination for well-heeled tourists and honeymooners, has been tense since a September bomb attack in the capital Male injured 12 foreign tourists.
Since then the president has been leading a crackdown against Islamic extremists.
The attacker, identified as Mohamed Murshid and said to have no previous criminal record, had hidden the knife wrapped in a paper national flag, the president's spokesman Mohamed Hussain Shareef told AFP.
"He was an idling youth," he said.
"He had shouted 'Allahu akbar' (God is greater) before lunging at the president. The knife grazed through the president's shirt, but he was unhurt."
Luckily for the president, 15-year-old boy scout Mohamed Jaisham grabbed the knife which cut his hand -- and some of his blood ended up on Gayoom's shirt, giving the initial impression that the president was also badly hurt, officials said.
Gayoom, who likes to mingle with islanders during his visits, was talking and shaking hands with people when the attack took place.
"We are now looking at intensifying his security. The president prefers to mingle with his people, but we can't afford to have another attack," Shareef said, adding that Gayoom has faced at least two attempts on his life during his 29-year tenure.
Assistant Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz told AFP the attacker was being questioned.
"Investigations are still going on. It is too early to say if he has links to any Islamic militant groups."
Gayoom said in a nationwide address after the attack that he had survived "thanks to Mohamed Jaisham (the scout) and Allah."
Authorities have accused Islamists of trying to turn the islands into a safe haven for them and wreck the country's vital tourism industry, which accounts for a third of the nation's economy.
Three men convicted of carrying out the September bombing were last month each jailed for 15 years.
Police are also looking out for foreign militant groups after press reports said some of the suspects had links to a Muslim separatist group fighting Indian rule over part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Gayoom's crackdown has included bans on women wearing the full veil and foreign preachers as well as unlicensed Muslim prayer groups.
In a recent interview with AFP, the president said the bomb attack targeting foreign tourists followed by violent clashes with police and security forces had alerted the country to the "very serious threat of extremism."
The opposition New Maldives Movement condemned the attack on the president and called for "an independent and speedy investigation," spokesman Ahmed Shaheed said.
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