Officers fired teargas to disperse the mobs who attacked government vehicles and public buildings in the capital city Male.
 
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on Saturday went on national television appealing for calm as the groups set fire to several cars and tried to torch buildings, residents contacted by telephone told AFP.

By late Saturday, fire engines and armed police vehicles were seen patrolling the narrow paved streets of the capital enforcing a night curfew.

After a curfew announcement on national TV and a show of force by the country's National Security Force (NSS), the situation appeared to have quietened down, a resident said.

The violence broke out after the death of in prison of a young Maldivian man serving time for a drug-related offence.

Relatives of the dead man blamed police for the death.

The authorities disputed the claim.

“There has been one death as a result of a clash between prisoners yesterday (Friday) at Maafushi,” Maldivian Information Minister Ibrahim Manikku Manikku said, referring to a jail located some 45 minutes away from Male by speedboat.

"The truth is that behind the sun-kissed facade the Maldives Government has a disgraceful record of repressing peaceful opposition"

Amnesty

Crime is rare in the South Asian atoll nation which is better known for its sandy white beaches, shallow lagoons of clear water and desert islands. Surfing is a favoured sport there.

Still, the paradise islands also have a dark underbelly.

According to Amnesty International the government of the Maldives is guilty of both political repression and torture.

Human rights abuses

In a report published in July of this year, Amnesty alleged that arbitrary detentions, unfair trials and long-term imprisonment of government critics are commonplace in the string of Indian Ocean islands.

It also said that it had uncovered torture and ill-treatment in the criminal justice system.

"Typically perceived as a tranquil 'holiday paradise', the truth is that behind the sun-kissed facade the Maldives Government has a disgraceful record of repressing peaceful opposition," says the group's Amnesty UK director, Kate Allen.

The Government of the Maldives strongly rejected the allegations, describing them as "false and baseless".

Earlier suggestions that the rioting was linked to the country’s upcoming elections were rejected by Manikku.

The one-mile (1.6 kilometre) long capital island Male has a population of about 80,000 people.