MALE - Maldives police arrested 193 people including the leader of an opposition party after clashes broke out late on Friday with protesters demanding the government free the Indian Ocean archipelago's ex-president from prison.
Those arrested include Sheikh Imran Abdulla, a leader of the small but influential Islamic Adhaalath Party, as well as the chairperson of the main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), a police official said on Saturday.
The MDP is the party of Mohamed Nasheed, a former president who was jailed in March for ordering the arrest in 2012 of a judge in a trial that was slammed as deeply flawed by the international community.
The imprisonment of Nasheed, who became the Maldives first democratically elected president in 2008, has triggered daily protests in the popular honeymooners' destination.
The Maldives, a string of palm-fringed beaches with fewer than 400,000 inhabitants, has struggled to embed democracy since 30 years of authoritarian rule came to an end in 2008.
Nasheed was ousted in disputed circumstances in 2012 as a result of a crisis that blew up over over the judge's arrest. His supporters say he was forced out in a coup.
During Friday's protest, police used tear gas, stun guns and pepper spray to stop crowds from breaking through barriers and into a compound housing the police headquarters in capital city Male, in the biggest protest since Nasheed's arrest.
Several police officers and protesters were injured although none seriously, witnesses said, and more protests are expected late on Saturday. All 193 of arrested remained in custody, a police official said on Saturday.
Tensions are rising in a country increasingly polarized between Nasheed supporters and those backing the government, and there are worries that arresting the opposition leaders could inflame an already volatile situation.
"The president doesn't have any interest in arresting opposition leaders, but no one is above the law," Ibrahim Muaz, a spokesman for the President's Office said.
"We are aware who the leaders of the protests are - the Adhaalath Party leader," he said, declining to comment on the reasons for the arrests.