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Two boats believed to be carrying more than 40 Rohingya refugees from Burma evaded Malaysian rescue forces on Thursday officials said, as the international community prepared to step up efforts to save boat people in Southeast Asian waters.
The two boats, carrying more than 20 people each, were spotted by a Malaysian patrol near the resort island of Langkawi early on Thursday but were in Thai territorial waters, said a senior Malaysian naval official. Langkawi is Malaysian territory but lies approximately two kilometres south of the Thai border.
“The orders are to search for them and provide humanitarian assistance. We are also prepared to bring them to land,” Roslee Mohamad Isa, acting commander of Malaysia’s northern region navy, told AFP.
“I have nine tons of food and clothing for the migrants who we believe are ethnic Rohingya. We want to save lives.”
Thailand is hosting a regional meeting on Friday to tackle the crisis that has seen more than 3,500 Bangladeshi economic migrants and stateless Rohingya Muslims from Burma arrive on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch said Friday’s meeting involving 17 countries should “reach bindings agreements to save people at sea” and permit them to “disembark without conditions.”
Roslee said the two boats were spotted off Langkawi by a Malaysian warship but attempts to communicate with them failed as they turned back into Thai waters.
A total of six ships from the navy and coastguard along with a helicopter were deployed for the rescue operation on orders of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Malaysia and Indonesia, under heavy international pressure, have agreed to allow boat people to land on their shores.
An AFP reporter on the KD Lekir, one of the six ships involved in the operations off Langkawi, saw officers closely scanning the nearby Thai islands for the two boats.
“We are patrolling over 50 nautical miles until Indonesian waters. I am not disappointed that we did not find the ships. What is important is we are ready to render humanitarian and medical assistance,” Commander Zainol Ahmad told AFP.
Roslee said the migrant boats were playing a cat-and-mouse game because they want to enter Malaysia but do not want to be caught by the authorities.
“They want to come in and to join their friends and relatives here. We cannot allow that to happen. I think the operators of the migrant boats do not want to be caught also,” he said.
Boatloads of starving Rohingya and Bangladeshis have typically been found abandoned by their smuggling syndicates and left to fend for themselves.