By Daniel Bosley and Shihar Aneez
MALE/COLOMBO (Reuters) - Thousands came by boat to the capital of the Maldives to protest on Friday against the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed and demand that current leader Abdulla Yameen resign.
Tensions have escalated on the cluster of tropical islands off India's southwestern tip since Nasheed was arrested last weekend on charges of terrorism relating to an incident when, as president, he ordered the arrest of a judge.
Nasheed, who was thrown to the ground as police dragged him to court on Monday, has said he was forced to resign at gunpoint over the judicial row in 2012, and allies say he was ousted in a coup.
Supporters of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Jumhooree Party, which has broken away from Yameen's ruling coalition, converged by boat from across the nation of 1,190 islands after a call to rally in Male.
A reporter at the scene estimated the crowd at between 8,000 and 10,000 people. The entire population of the Maldives, a popular destination for sun-seeking tourists, is less than 400,000.
Protesters waved green-and-red national flags and chanted a song whose words included a call to "stand in defense of the constitution".
"The current government is illegitimate," one protester, contacted from Sri Lanka by telephone, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Authorities played down the size of the demonstration. Mohamed Hussain Shareef, a minister in Yameen's office, said police had found on protesters rods, machetes and knives.
"Numbers are average. Only a couple of thousand people at best," he told Reuters.
Opposition sources told Reuters the protest was intended as a show of strength before a parliamentary session on March 3 at which the anti-Yameen alliance would try to initiate a process leading to the president's impeachment.
Yameen, 55, won a November 2013 presidential poll whose second round was canceled when early results put Nasheed ahead. Nasheed, the first popularly elected president of the Maldives, eventually lost by a narrow margin and conceded defeat.
"A liberal and democratic constitution has fallen into the wrong hands," MDP spokesman Imthiyaz Fahmy told Reuters, adding that Yameen was taking the country into a "dark reign".
"The people of the country will not let that happen. We will defend the constitution."
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Andrew Roche)