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India Continuing Search for Hundreds of Boat People


India's Coast Guard says it has rescued hundreds of migrants from Bangladesh and Burma, but hundreds more may be missing at sea. Indian officials say the rescued Rohingya boat people claim they were arrested by Thai officials and set adrift on the high seas.

Indian maritime officials are describing as unprecedented the number of foreigners washing up on their southern shores or being found adrift at sea.

Most appear to be from the Muslim minority Rohingya boat people in Burma, as well as some Bangladeshis, seeking better opportunities in Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia.

The commander of the Indian Coast Guard at Port Blair, S.P. Sharma, tells VOA hundreds have been rescued since late December in the Andaman and Nicobar Island chains to the south of Burma.

"We have got about 448 illegal migrants rescued and brought to safety in Port Blair. And I do not rule out some more landing up on our shores," said Sharma, "and we would like to rescue as many of them if they are there at sea."

Officials say at least 10 bodies have washed ashore on the remote Indian islands.

Commander Sharma says many of those rescued have told a harrowing story of being detained and then sent back out to sea by the Thai military.

"Before they could reach their destination they were intercepted at sea by a foreign warship, detained on a camp [and] after detention of about four to five days they were pushed into the sea," added Sharma.

The migrants were allegedly set adrift on boats without engines or any navigational equipment.

Reports from human-rights activists say Thailand may have apprehended, beaten and then set loose on the ocean up to 1,000 boat people in the past month. Thai officials deny such treatment and expulsions, but say an investigation will be conducted.

There has been concern in Thailand about a large influx of Rohingya. It is feared some may try to join Muslim insurgents active in the southern part of the country.

Indian coast guard officials say they are continuing aerial surveillance and patrols by vessels in the Andamans. But the operation, combined with a heightened maritime vigilance since the Mumbai terror attack in late November, is considerably straining the coast guard's limited resources.

Indian officials say diplomatic discussions with neighbors to the east will be needed to try to halt the exodus of boat people. The potential humanitarian crisis is expected to be on the agenda of the ASEAN summit scheduled for late February in Thailand.


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