426 rescued as Myanmar offers first help to migrants

426 rescued as Myanmar offers first help to migrants

Thai foreign minister meets Malaysia, Indonesia

Acehnese fishermen are silhouetted by the rising sun as they rescue migrants who are stranded on their boat on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia Wednesday. Hundreds of migrants stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia, officials said. (AP photo)
Acehnese fishermen are silhouetted by the rising sun as they rescue migrants who are stranded on their boat on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia Wednesday. Hundreds of migrants stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia, officials said. (AP photo)

Hundreds of starving boatpeople were rescued off Indonesia on Wednesday as Myanmar for the first time offered to help ease a regional migrant crisis blamed in part on its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority.

The change of tune from Yangon came as the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand -- facing global criticism for turning away rickety boats packed with starving migrants -- gathered for talks on the issue near Kuala Lumpur.

Following appeals by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Washington last week for the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to be rescued, Pope Francis also issued his first comments on the issue Tuesday, likening the plight of the "poor Rohingya" to that of Christian and ethnic Yazidi people brutalised by the Islamic State group.

On Wednesday, a total of 426 migrants believed to be from Myanmar were rescued in the early hours of Wednesday off Aceh in Indonesia, local officials said.

"Their condition is very weak. Many are sick, they told me that some of their friends died from starvation," said Teuku Nyak Idrus, a local fishermen involved in the rescue.

Those saved in the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia's huge Sumatra island included 30 children and 26 women, he added.

Migrants transfer to smaller fishing boat as they are rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday. (AP photo)

Around 3,000 boatpeople, most of them from Myanmar, already have swum to shore or been rescued off Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past 10 days after Thailand's crackdown disrupted long-established smuggling routes, prompting some of the gangs responsible to abandon their human cargo at sea.

Yangon changes tune

Myanmar state media quoted a foreign ministry statement on Wednesday saying the government "shares concerns" expressed by the international community and is "ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea".

That marked the most conciliatory statement yet from the Myanmar government, which considers Rohingya to be foreigners from neighbouring Bangladesh and disavows all responsibility for them.

Myanmar has previously said it may snub Thailand's call for a regional conference on the issue, and was not present at Wednesday's meeting of foreign ministers in Malaysia.

Pope chimes in

In a mass at the Vatican, Pope Francis compared the Rohingya to those victimised in the Islamic State group's brutal jihad in Syria and Iraq.

"We think of the poor Rohingya of Myanmar. As they leave their land to escape persecution they do not know what will happen to them," he said.

The UN's refugee agency told AFP on Tuesday it had received reports that at least 2,000 migrants had been stranded at sea for weeks on boats near the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts.

With food and water supplies running low, some boats have drifted back and forth as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand refused to accept them, drawing international condemnation.

Tripartite talks

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, Retno Marsudi (right); Malaysia, Anifah Aman (centre); and Thailand, Tanasak Patimapragorn (left) during their meeting on human trafficking and people smuggling in Putrajaya, Malaysia today. The foreign ministers of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia on 20 May gathered near Kuala Lumpur to discuss the escalating crisis of sea migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. (EPA photo)

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman went into the talks Wednesday morning with his counterparts Retno Marsudi of Indonesia, and Thailand's Tanasak Patimapragorn in Malaysia's administrative capital of Putrajaya.

Mr Anifah called on Myanmar on Sunday to engage in talks on the crisis, warning the Malaysia may use its power as this year's chair of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- to which Myanmar also belongs -- to call an emergency regional meeting on the issue.

Myanmar also has come growing pressure to help stem the outflow of Muslim Rohingya, who are fleeing their homes in the country's western Rakhine state after years of violence and discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Most head for Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The UN's human rights and refugee chiefs have called on all three countries to launch search-and-rescue operations, bring boatpeople to land and begin procedures for assessing any refugee claims.

Wednesday's rescues

Acehnese fishermen help migrants to transfer to their boat on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, May 20. (AP photo)

Hours before ministers began their talks, the first batch of 102 migrants were brought ashore around 2am and taken to a village in East Aceh district, said search and rescue agency official Khairul Nova.

The second batch were found in their boat about 65 kilometres off the coast and were brought to a port in the Julok area of East Aceh district a few hours later, said another official, Sadikin, who goes by one name.

"They found the boat bobbing about, the engine was dead, the fishermen felt pity for them," he told AFP.

"Some looked very sick and weak, some looked dehydrated, there seems to be a lack of water and food at sea," he said, adding there were many babies and children among the migrants.

"We are giving first aid to these people, we are feeding them, giving them water and providing a comfortable place for them."

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