India is believed to be building a naval facility on the remote Mauritian island of Agalega in the south-western Indian Ocean, a leading Arab media organisation claimed on Tuesday, citing satellite imagery, financial data and on-the-ground evidence collected by it.
In a report, Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel claimed that the military experts who have analysed the evidence collected by its Investigative Unit say an airstrip under construction in Agalega will almost certainly be used for maritime patrol missions by the Indian Navy.
Agalega, some 12 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide island, is located about 1,100-km from Mauritius' main island and is home to about 300 people.
Currently, aircraft use a short 800-metre landing strip to land on Agalega. Once completed, the new airstrip will be as long as runways used by the biggest aeroplanes in the world at large international airports, it said.
"It's an intelligence facility for India to stage air and naval presence in order to increase surveillance in the wider southwest Indian Ocean and Mozambique channel," Abhishek Mishra, associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think-tank in New Delhi, was quoted as saying by the news channel.
"Based on my personal information, my conversations with all these people in my circle, the base will be used for the berthing of our ships and the runway will be mostly used for our P-8I aircraft," Mishra said, referring to India's P-8I maritime patrol aircraft that can be used for surveillance, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.
There was no immediate response from the Indian Navy regarding the Al Jazeera report.
Samuel Bashfield, a researcher at the National Security College at the Australian National University, said the southwest Indian Ocean is an area where it's important for India to have areas where their aircraft can support their ships, and also where it has areas it can use as launching pads for operations.
"I think it's an absolutely perfect spot for a military base," Bashfield, whose research focuses on strategic and geopolitical issues in the Indian Ocean, was quoted as saying by the channel.
The pictures and data show how, over the last two years, the island has become home to hundreds of construction workers living in a semi-permanent camp on the northern tip of the 12km-long island, it said.
India sought access to the island in 2015 to develop as an air and naval staging point for surveillance of the south-west Indian Ocean - in a sense redolent of facilities other nations operate, such as the joint US-UK base at Diego Garcia, Australian website 'The Interpreter' reported early this year.
"Comparing the most recent images from Google Earth to the same location as seen in 2014 shows a new 3000-metre runway - capable of hosting the Indian Navy's new Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft - and considerable apron overshadows the existing airfield in the middle of the island," it said in an article.
It said the project entails a new airport, port and logistics and communication facilities and - potentially - "any other facility related to the project."
Media reports about the military base first surfaced in 2018 but both Mauritius and India have denied that the construction project is for military purposes and say the infrastructure is only to benefit the islanders, the channel said.
Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has also categorically denied that the construction is for military purposes.
"Let me reiterate, most emphatically and in unequivocal terms, that there is no agreement between Mauritius and India to set up a military base in Agaléga," he said in the Parliament recently.
The channel said the Mauritian government restated its position that there is "no agreement between Mauritius and India to set up a military base in Agaléga."
The Indian Ocean, considered the backyard of the Indian Navy, is critical for India's strategic interests. China has been making concerted efforts to increase its presence in the region.
"We see in the last few years that the Indian Ocean's becoming much more multi-polar in nature," Bashfield said.
"We see China asserting greater influence and we see various Chinese military platforms in the Indian Ocean," he said, referring to China's military base in Djibouti and access to several ports in the region.
As a result, India has stepped up its game as well, Mishra added.
"The aim of the Agalega Island agreement which India and Mauritius have entered into is for the island to act as a crucial node in expanding India's overall footprint in the region," Mishra said.
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