Myanmar escorting boat crammed with migrants to 'safe' area

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Myanmar said a boat crammed with 727 migrants that it has kept stranded at sea for days was now being escorted to a "safe" area for identity checks and the United States said it believed those aboard would be allowed ashore in Myanmar this week.

"The operation is starting. They will be taken to a safe destination," Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut told Reuters by telephone, adding that the migrants had been provided with food and water. He would not disclose that location due to "security and safety concerns".

Earlier, Ye Htut had said Myanmar's navy was taking the converted fishing boat to Bangladeshi waters, prompting its neighbor to underline that it would take back only those who were genuinely its citizens, but he later clarified his remarks to say the verification process would take place first.

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Myanmar escorting boat crammed with migrants to 'safe' area
In this picture taken on May 21, 2015, ethnic Rohingya Muslim men from Myanmar sit in lines at a newly set up confinement area situated amid a palm oil plantation at Bayeun, after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the coast of Aceh province on May 20. Malaysia ordered search and rescue missions on May 21 for thousands of boatpeople stranded at sea, as Myanmar hosted talks with US and Southeast Asian envoys on the migrant exodus from its shores. AFP PHOTO / Sutanta ADITYA (Photo credit should read SUTANTA ADITYA/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Rohingya migrants help each other to have haircut at their temporary shelter in Bayeun, Aceh province, Indonesia, Thursday, May 21, 2015. In the past three weeks, thousands of people — Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty — have landed in overcrowded boats on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. After initially pushing many boats back, Malaysia and Indonesia announced on Wednesday that they will offer temporary shelter to all incoming migrants. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Rohingya youths from Myanmar wash themselves at the newly set up confinement area for migrants at Bayeun, Aceh province on May 22, 2015 after more than 400 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued by Indonesian fishermen off the waters of the province on May 20. The widespread persecution of the impoverished community in Myanmar's Rakhine state is one of the primary causes for the current regional exodus, alongside growing numbers trying to escape poverty in neighbouring Bangladesh. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants sit on their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. In a potential breakthrough in Southeast Asia's humanitarian crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia offered Wednesday to provide temporary shelter to thousands of migrants stranded at sea after weeks of saying they weren't welcome. But they appealed for international help, saying the crisis was a global, not a regional, problem. (AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)
Migrants wait to be be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on their boat on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. In a potential breakthrough in Southeast Asia's humanitarian crisis, Indonesia and Malaysia offered Wednesday to provide temporary shelter to thousands of migrants stranded at sea after weeks of saying they weren't welcome. But they appealed for international help, saying the crisis was a global, not a regional, problem. (AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)
A man (C) looks at an abandoned boat that carried Rohingya migrants who were rescued earlier in the day, off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in Indonesia's East Aceh district of Aceh province on May 20, 2015. Hundreds of starving boatpeople were rescued off Indonesia on May 20 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. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
KUALA LANGSA, INDONESIA - MAY 19: Rohingya migrants breakfast inside a temporary shelter on May 19, 2015 in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees arrived in Indonesia on May 15, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
KUTA BINJE, INDONESIA - MAY 20: Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants take a bath after arriving at the port in Julok village on May 20, 2015 in Kuta Binje, Aceh Province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
KUTA BINJE, INDONESIA - MAY 20: Rohingya migrants eat after arriving at the port in Julok village on May 20, 2015 in Kuta Binje, Aceh Province, Indonesia. Hundreds of Myanmar's Rohingya refugees have arrived in Indonesia, many requiring medical attention. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded at sea reportedly with no country in the region willing to take them in. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim community have long been persecuted and marginalized by Myanmar's mostly Buddhist population. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after they jumped from a boat (R) drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants jump to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrants bring back food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after jumping to collect them at sea from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rohingya migrant women cry as they sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
A Rohingya migrant eats food dropped by a Thai army helicopter after he jumped to collect the supplies at sea from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants pour water on the head of a man who had fainted at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants receive medical treatments at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants receive medical treatments at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Bangladeshi migrants walk toward a temporary shelter upon arrival at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A group of rescued migrant children, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, sit upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants tend to a fainted friend at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Newly arrived Rohingya migrants sit inside a temporary shelter at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, rest on their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a co-ordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A young boy and his mother rest in a shelter after their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a co-ordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, receive medical treatment upon their arrival at the new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on May 15, 2015. More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on May 15, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit. AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN (Photo credit should read CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bangladeshi migrants sit inside a temporary shelter upon arrival at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Newly arrived Bangladeshi migrants receive medical treatments at Kuala Langsa Port in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hundreds of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after being adrift at sea for weeks, authorities said Friday. They are among the few who have successfully sneaked past a wall of resistance mounted by Southeast Asian countries who have made it clear the boat people are not welcome. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A sick migrant is helped by friends to board a truck that is taking them to a local hospital upon arrival in Simpang Tiga, Aceh province, Indonesia Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Hundreds of migrants stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia, officials said Wednesday, the latest in a stream of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to reach shore in a growing crisis confronting Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
A rescued migrant weeps upon arrival Simpang Tiga, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Hundreds of migrants stranded at sea for months were rescued and taken to Indonesia, officials said Wednesday, the latest in a stream of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to reach shore in a growing crisis confronting Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
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A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said she believed the Myanmar government had decided to allow the migrants to disembark in Myanmar on Wednesday or Thursday, something Washington welcomed.

"We urge (Myanmar) to provide full protection and assistance to these migrants in coordination with UNHCR and IOM, Marie Harf said, referring to the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration.

The 727 migrants are the among an estimated 2,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, that could still be at sea after being abandoned by people-smuggling gangs since a crackdown started last month in Thailand, the U.N. said.

The migrants were found drifting in the Andaman Sea on Friday in an overloaded fishing boat that was taking on water.

Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project tracks the movement of Rohingya boats, said the migrants should be put ashore immediately and the United Nations should have access to them to provide assistance and identify who they are.

IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told a news briefing in Geneva the organization was concerned the boat might be taken to Bangladeshi waters and was worried about migrants "not being given due places to land and continuing to suffer while they are aboard these vessels".

Myanmar's government initially labeled the migrants on the overloaded boat "Bengalis", a term it applies to both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, a mostly stateless Muslim minority of about 1.1 million living in apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

PRESSURE ON MYANMAR

Myanmar has been under increased international pressure to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas after a seaborne exodus mushroomed last month into a regional crisis with around 4,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi "boat people" landing on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama said Myanmar needed to end discrimination against Rohingyas in order to make its fledgling democracy a success.

A Myanmar navy officer who declined to be named told Reuters on Sunday that some migrants aboard the crowded boat could speak a dialect that is used in Rakhine state but not widely spoken in Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi foreign ministry official said only migrants identified as Bangladeshi nationals would be brought back to the country.

Lewa said some Rohingya would be reluctant to identify themselves as such because, if they are unable to provide identification, they could be jailed in Myanmar for illegal immigration.

On May 26, Myanmar said it had reached an agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate 200 Bangladeshis who were among 208 men rescued from a boat off the Myanmar coast last week.

Both Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty at home have become prey to human traffickers.

On Tuesday, a three-star Thai general accused of involvement in human trafficking turned himself in to authorities, the most high profile among scores of suspects wanted as part of the drive to end an illicit business.

Police say 51 arrests have been made so far in a campaign that has also brought the grim discovery of scores of graves along the jungle-clad border dividing Thailand and Malaysia.

Scott Busby, the U.S. Deputy Assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, on Tuesday welcomed an agreement last week between affected countries to address "root causes" of the exodus, but said Myanmar should make a start by granting Rohingyas citizenship.

Hollywood actor Matt Dillon was in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, on Monday to highlight the plight of the Rohingya. He visited a camp for displaced Rohingya and a fishing village from which many migrants had left on smugglers' boats.

"I saw a grim situation, a lot of barbed wire ... The residential area was ghettoised," Dillon told reporters in Bangkok. "I felt that this is a very vulnerable group. These people are the most desperate of the desperate."

(Additional reporting by Reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Simon Webb in BANGKOK, Ruma Paul in DHAKA, Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH, Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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