The ex-president of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, who claims he was forced from office in a coup, said he expected to be arrested on Thursday as protests and violence escalated in the holiday paradise.

Nasheed, the Indian Ocean country's first democratically elected president, told AFP at his family home in the capital that a court order had been issued for his detention and he anticipated being sent to jail.

"They have issued a warrant to arrest me now and said that I will be the first former president to spend the rest of his life in jail," he said. "I hope the international community will take note and do something right now."

While a nervous group of family members and loyalists awaited the arrival of officers, elsewhere in the country the police and army were struggling to take control after a night described by a presidential aide as "anarchy."

Maldives police commissioner Abdulla Riyas said 18 police stations had been attacked on outlying islands in the archipelago, while numerous court and government buildings had been looted and torched.

"What happened is utterly disgraceful and it is the saddest day in the modern history of Maldives," newly appointed Home Minister Mohammed Jamil Ahmed told AFP.

The images of rioting are potentially devastating for a country which depends on tourism thanks to its crystal-clear turquoise waters, coral-fringed beaches and ultra-luxury resorts.

The violence began on Wednesday when thousands of Nasheed supporters massed in the capital Male following his resignation the day before.

After small skirmishes, in which stones were thrown at police, officers then attacked the demonstrators with batons and beat a number of senior figures of Nasheed's party, several of whom were hospitalised.

Nasheed himself was beaten and briefly detained.

As unrest spread to the far corners of the island nation of more than 1,000 islands, new president Mohamed Waheed, who is accused by his predecessor of taking part in a coup, struggled to maintain order.

"There's no law and order at all. It's a complete breakdown," the mayor of the second-biggest city of Addu, Abdulla Sodig, told AFP by telephone.

Waheed made two emergency cabinet appointments -- home and defence -- and troops were dispatched to Addu and other populated areas to help the police regain control.

"Military reinforcements have been sent to the south of the country (Addu) where there have been intense clashes," director-general of the Maldivian National Defence Forces, Ahmed Shiyam, told AFP.

In the capital Male, where rain fell steadily throughout the day, the streets were tense but calm.

It is the Maldives' worst unrest since clashes in 2003 following the death of a prisoner at the hands of security forces, an event which sparked the process of democratic change on the Indian Ocean islands.

As the violence worsened, sweeping across at least eight islands outside the capital, Nasheed said he had sent his wife and one of his two daughters to neighbouring Sri Lanka.

New president Waheed was sworn in Tuesday just hours after Nasheed announced his resignation in a televised press conference.

Nasheed later claimed that armed rebels had threatened him with weapons if he did not step down, a plot he alleged was backed by opposition leaders with the knowledge of Waheed, his former vice president.

In Washington, the State Department called for calm and said a senior US envoy would visit the Maldives on Saturday, but stopped short of describing events there as a coup -- a designation requiring a cutoff of all aid under US law.

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, Nasheed reiterated his charge that a coup had taken place, and said the Maldives was sliding back into the era of "dictatorship" that preceded its first democratic elections in 2008.

"Let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship," Nasheed wrote.

Both Waheed and the army have categorically denied the coup charges, although a military spokesman admitted officers had "advised" him to step down.

Nasheed rose to power from grassroots opposition to the 30-year autocratic regime of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and was imprisoned on several occasions.

His dramatic resignation followed weeks of anti-government protests that escalated after Nasheed ordered the army to arrest Criminal Court Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed on charges of misconduct and favouring opposition figures.