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LANGKAWI, Malaysia (AP) — A ship carrying hundreds of Rohingya Muslims sent out a distress call asking to be rescued Tuesday, saying they were abandoned by their captain without fuel and have been without food or water for three days.
Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, which has been monitoring the movement of fleeing Rohingya for more than a decade, says she spoke by phone with one of the migrants on board the Thai vessel.
"They asked to be urgently rescued," she said, adding there were an estimated 350 people on board, 50 of them women.
"They are not sure exactly where they are, possibly near Langkawi," Lewa said, of the Malaysian resort island that has been the dropoff point in recent days for more than 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis. "They say they can see shore."
Malaysia's maritime commander for the northern region, Tan Kok Kwee, said there have been no sightings so far of any other boats packed with migrants.
Some 1.3 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, but they are denied citizenship by the Southeast Asian country's government. They have been labeled by the United Nations one of the world's most persecuted religious minorities. Tens of thousands risk perilous journeys at sea every year in search of a better life.
Most are trying to reach Malaysia, but many have been stranded at sea as governments in the region have begun cracking down on human trafficking.
Lewa is an advocate for Rohingya who is considered an authoritative voice on migrant boat departures and arrivals. She has tracked about 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis who have gotten on large and small trafficking boats in the region in recent months, but have yet to disembark. Based on her information, she believes the migrants and the boats are still in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters.
They have been prevented from disembarking, in some cases for two or more months, because a crackdown on human trafficking networks in Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh has sent agents and brokers into hiding. In some cases captains are abandoning their vessels, leaving men, women and children to fend for themselves.
Lewa said the boat calling for a rescue Tuesday was up until recently operated by Soe Naing, widely known as Anwar, who arrested by Thai police earlier for his alleged role in a brutal trafficking network in southern Thailand.
The majority of those on board were from Myanmar's troubled state of Rakhine, home to almost all of the country's Rohingya, she said.