MALE (Reuters) - Mutinying police on the holiday islands of the Maldives took over the state broadcaster on Tuesday and issued an opposition-linked station's calls for people to come on the streets to overthrow President Mohamed Nasheed, witnesses said.
Nasheed was safely inside the headquarters of the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) and in control of the military and would address the nation shortly, a source close to the president told Reuters.
A handful of MNDF soldiers was taking part in the demonstration of several hundred people outside the headquarters, along with police who defied orders to break up opposition protests earlier Tuesday.
The violence on the Indian Ocean archipelago best-known as a beach getaway is the worst in a struggle between Nasheed, widely credited with ushering in full democracy with a 2008 election win, and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year rule was widely seen as autocratic.
It was unclear how Nasheed would address the nation with the state broadcaster in the control of the mutinying police.
Protests began weeks ago after Nasheed ordered the military to arrest the top criminal court judge, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of Gayoom.
That set off a constitutional crisis that has Nasheed in the unaccustomed position of defending himself of acting like a dictator.
Gayoom's opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives accused the military of firing rubber bullets at protesters and a party spokesman, Mohamed Hussain "Mundhu" Shareef, said "loads of people" were injured. He gave no specifics.
An official close to the president denied the government had used rubber bullets, but confirmed that about three dozen police officers defied orders overnight and smashed up the main rallying point of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party.
"This follows Gayoom's party calling for the overthrow of the Maldives' first democratically elected government and for citizens to launch jihad against the president," said the official who declined to be identified.
The protests, and the scramble for position ahead of next year's presidential election, have seen parties adopting hardline Islamist rhetoric and accusing Nasheed of being anti-Islamic.
The trouble has also shown the longstanding rivalry between Gayoom and Nasheed, who was jailed for a combined six years after being arrested 27 times by Gayoom's government while agitating for democracy.
The trouble has been largely invisible to the 900,000 or so well-heeled tourists who come every year to visit desert islands swathed in aquamarine seas, ringed by white-sand beaches.
Most tourists are whisked straight to their island hideaway by seaplane or speedboat, where they are free to drink alcohol and get luxurious spa treatments, insulated from the everyday Maldives, a fully Islamic state where alcohol is outlawed and skimpy beachwear frowned upon.
(Reporting by C. Bryson Hull; Editing by Robert Birsel)