LONDON The Commonwealth suspended the Maldives from its democracy and human rights watchdog on Wednesday and called for elections before the end of the year after the island state's president was forced from power at gunpoint earlier this month.
Commonwealth officials meeting in London stopped short of suspending the Indian Ocean country from the 54-member group of nations, predominantly ex-British colonies.
Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, who resigned on February 7, says he was ousted in a coup by mutinous military and police officers after protests in the archipelago known for its luxury tourist resorts.
Mohamed Waheed Hussain Manik, previously vice president, has taken over power and has suggested that elections could be brought forward from the scheduled date of October 2013.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), a nine-strong group of foreign ministers which investigates human rights and democracy issues, said it was too soon to say whether the transfer of power was lawful.
"It was not possible in the allotted time to determine conclusively the constitutionality of the resignation of President Nasheed," CMAG said in a statement which called for an independent inquiry into the events early this month.
Calling for "restraint and mutual respect", the group urged Waheed and his predecessor as president Nasheed to start immediate talks to help pave the way for elections that should take place before the end of this year.
The Maldives' membership of the CMAG watchdog will be suspended while it remains under investigation. The group will review the situation next month.
The protests that led to Nasheed's departure began after he ordered the army to arrest the criminal court chief justice on suspicion of blocking corruption and human rights cases against allies of his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Most of the cabinet already selected by Waheed are veterans of the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years.
The chain of 1,200 islands was a sultanate for nearly 900 years and became a British protectorate in the 19th century. After gaining independence from Britain in 1965, the first fully democratic elections were held in 2008, with Nasheed taking power.
(Reporting by Peter Griffiths; Editing by Roger Atwood)