Malaysia orders sea search-and-rescue for migrants

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Malaysia and Indonesia Offer Migrants Shelter

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Four Malaysian navy ships began searching the seas for stranded boat people Thursday in the first official rescue operation since desperate migrants started washing onto Southeast Asia's shores, and a formerly reluctant Myanmar agreed to attend a regional meeting aimed at easing the crisis.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis are believed to be trapped on boats with little food or water - some after being pushed back by the navies of at least three countries - and the international community has warned that time to save them is running out.

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Malaysia orders sea search-and-rescue for migrants
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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The announcement Thursday by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was the latest in a series of breakthroughs, including an offer by his country and Indonesia to provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children until a more permanent solution is found.

He said he had ordered his navy and coast guard to conduct search-and-rescue efforts for other boats.

"We have to prevent loss of life," he tweeted.

Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said four vessels had been deployed, and three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.

Myanmar, which earlier hinted it would skip a regional meeting in Thailand next week bringing together representatives of more than a dozen nations, changed course Thursday, saying it would attend.

About half the migrants on the boats are Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing persecution and violence in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

"We are ready to cooperate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds," said Zaw Htay, director of the president's office.

The decision was made after an invitation letter arrived, he said, noting it did not imply Myanmar was solely responsible for the crisis or use the word Rohingya, a term that is not recognized by his government.

Myanmar officials refer to members of the religious minority as "Bengalis," implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.

The U.N. says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.

Over the past few years, Rohingya have faced increasing state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar. They have been targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and confined to camps. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.

Since the crisis stated unfolding three weeks ago, around 3,000 migrants have washed to shore. The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea.

After pushing back several vessels, Indonesia and Malaysia announced Wednesday they would offer temporary shelter to incoming migrants if the international community helps resettle them within a year.

They said it was a global, not regional, problem.

The United States responded quickly, saying it was prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort organized by the U.N. refugee agency to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.

The tiny African country of Gambia has also said it is willing to take in Rohingya refugees. "As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is (our) sacred duty to help," the nation's presidency said in a statement.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, visiting Southeast Asia, met Thursday with Myanmar's president, army commander in chief and other officials, raising "deep concern about the thousands of vulnerable migrants stranded at sea," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

"He stressed the need for Burma to address the root causes of this migration, including the racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence facing the Rohingya population in Rakhine State," Harf said, referring to the former name for Myanmar.

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Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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